JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ashley Watanabe leads the Rainbow Wahine in digs with 367 -- 70 short of the school's single-season record.
Wahine's Watanabe is far from a wannabe
The UH libero has made herself into one of the best defensive players in the nation
By Cindy Luis
IT'S ALL BEEN about having faith, in her God and in herself. And knowing that the journey from nowhere to now is not done in a single leap but in daily steps.
Such has been the process that has turned Ashley Watanabe from marginal to magical on the volleyball court. Hawaii's senior libero has become one of the best defensive players in the country -- and one of the best in the vaunted Rainbow Wahine history -- through hard work and trust.
Today: New Mexico State (19-5, 11-4) at No. 9 Hawaii (20-6, 14-0), 7 p.m., Stan Sheriff Center
Tomorrow : Louisiana Tech (15-16, 2-13) at Hawaii, 7 p.m., Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Live, KFVE (Ch.5)
Radio: Live, KKEA (1420-AM)
There's a simple explanation for her "No Fear" attitude of flinging herself across the court for a ball, regardless if it's witnessed by only teammates and coaches at Gym I or by thousands at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"It doesn't hurt that much," said Watanabe, whose career began as a redshirt freshman walk-on in 2001. "I've learned what my position requires and how to do it with the least amount of pain.
"God's been good to me. I've only been hurt once. I guess the 'no fear' comes with trusting that everything will be taken care of, that God's taking care of my body."
The only time Watanabe has been injured in her career was when breaking a finger right before last season's NCAA Tournament first-round match against Colorado. She finished the season on the sideline, in a cast and eight digs away from the UH single-season dig record.
In typical Watanabe fashion, she took the disappointment of missing the team's final three matches as a lesson to be learned.
"For some reason, God has graced me with not being mad," she said. "I can't put a finger on the reason for breaking my finger, but somewhere along the line I will be able to refer to it and it will help me get through another trial.
"Sitting out and watching my teammates play like they did was a true blessing. I saw the fire, the sense of urgency they played with and it motivated me for this year. I've learned that, not just in volleyball but in life, that if you want something bad enough, you have to go out and get it."
It's how Watanabe was able to come from a limited volleyball background to become a Division I player. She is again within reach of the UH single-season mark as well as bettering her own dig-average record of 4.22.
"I wish we had more Ashley Watanabes," Wahine associate coach Charlie Wade said. "She has built herself into the player she is like no one I've ever seen. She's a really good collegiate player at her position, breaking records at a school that's been playing volleyball forever. She's proving to be one of our best defensive players ever and this is a kid that didn't have that long pedigree from playing club volleyball.
"As a high school kid (Aiea '01) she was athletic and moved pretty good, but she has transformed herself physically. She is very physical -- there is no fear, no hesitation. She just throws herself around the gym all day, every day. She has a lot of other things going on in her life that could be cumbersome, but you'd never know it when she comes to the gym. She shows up every day to work, and to work hard."
Watanabe works hard at a number of things. A bass player since age 12, she performs with her family's band "NYK" on weekends. She's a waitress. She works at her father's real-estate office and will soon go for her Realtor's license. She'll graduate with her business management degree next month and is thinking about doing international mission work for her church, Grace Bible.
"It's all about prioritizing," Watanabe said. "My parents have always enforced prioritizing. I have God first, then family, school, volleyball and friends. When things are going crazy -- like they are now -- it's all about sitting back, refocusing and knowing that there is time if you allocate it correctly."
Her parents have been amazed by her success, but not surprised.
"She's always been a hard worker," mother Janice said. "Her father told her that if she was going to play Division I, she had to give it 110 percent.
"My husband has his own company, so our kids know that to get where you want to go you have to work hard. That only you can get you where you want to go."
"She's a real special person, and I'm not saying this because I'm her father," Eric Watanabe said. "I'm more proud of the person she has become than the player we've watched.
"God is the center of attention in our family and we're proud of her faith. We have mixed emotions about her career ending, it's been something special. But she has run the race, finished the task at hand and will be successful in whatever she decides to do next."
The season is not over for No. 9 Hawaii, although the matches tonight and tomorrow could be the last at the Sheriff Center for the three seniors: Watanabe, Victoria Prince and Susie Boogaard. It all depends on whether the NCAA awards UH home matches for the first and second rounds or sends the Wahine away, as happened last year.
Teammates and coaches say the three will all be missed, Watanabe in particular for her work ethic.
"She's an example of someone who has made a mark on our program purely through hard work and attitude," Wahine coach Dave Shoji said. "It's hard to build yourself into a D-I athlete and she's one of the few who's been able to do that."
"Ashley's been that senior you want to have, the one you want to follow," junior setter Kanoe Kamana'o said. "Every time she talks, she says something. Every time she smiles, you smile. She's very unique and we'll miss her on and off the court."
Watanabe still has a shot at becoming the single-season dig leader. She has 367 going into tonight's match with New Mexico State; the record is 437, set by Teee Williams in 1988.
With 859 career digs, Watanabe also could break into the school's top 10 for career digs. That isn't her goal.
"Records are meant to be broken," she said. "The one thing that can last is a national championship. That would be a legacy to pass on.
"My career has been a work in progress for five years. In some ways I am surprised that I was able to get where I am, but I've decided to take it in stride. When you work hard at something every day, it's not an extreme jump. It gradually melts into going from one point to another until you find yourself where you wanted to be."