JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Setter Kanoe Kamana'o and middle Juliana Sanders are among the 13 letter winners returning to the Wahine volleyball team next season.
Wahine’s painful loss sinks in
Coach Dave Shoji is reminded how difficult winning a national championship has become
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. » It's never been about the numbers for Dave Shoji. He's got three years left on his contract as the Hawaii women's volleyball coach, nearly enough time to hit the 1,000-win mark, given that the Rainbow Wahine have averaged 31 victories the past six years.
But that's not the motivation to stick around the Manoa program. If there was a number of any importance to Shoji, it would be '5' ... as in a fifth national championship.
After winning four titles in eight years, it has been a very long drought since hoisting the trophy in Indianapolis in 1987. When Shoji's 31st season with the Rainbow Wahine ended here Friday in the NCAA regional semifinals -- courtesy of Missouri -- it left him with 897 career victories and shaking his head yesterday morning.
"It's been very frustrating," said Shoji, three wins away from becoming the third Division I women's coach to reach 900 victories. "It's very difficult to win the national championship these days. It's getting more and more difficult to get past where we've been getting the past few years.
"There are so many teams that are good out there. I don't think the people in Hawaii understand how tough it is to win it all. For a Tennessee to beat a Penn State, they've got to have really good players, and basically players no one has ever heard of."
Tennessee did it again yesterday in the regional final here. The 17th-ranked Lady Vols advanced to their first final four with a 30-28, 30-27, 25-30, 30-17 win over No. 10 Missouri.
Santa Clara's upset of Arizona last night meant that at least one school from California had made the final four in all 25 NCAA tournaments.
Overall it is going to be a very different looking final four in San Antonio this week, one few imagined two weeks ago when the 64-team field was announced, with Tennessee facing Washington in one semifinal Thursday and Nebraska meeting Santa Clara in the other at the Alamodome.
Shoji will be in Texas, sans team, to attend the AVCA coaches convention, and the coach of the year and All-America banquets. Shoji, up for the national coach award, will likely have two players with him as repeat All-Americans in junior setter Kanoe Kamana'o and senior blocker Victoria Prince.
"I'm disappointed for our team that they won't be there," said Shoji, who left for Honolulu this morning. "We had our chances to win (against Missouri), but they took away the momentum and we never got it back."
He had hoped his team could get back to the final four after being eliminated in the regional semifinal last season. Hawaii made it to the national semifinals three of the four years prior to 2004 but hasn't advanced to the championship match since losing to Stanford in 1996.
When asked if the power in the sport was shifting away from the West, the former All-America setter from UC Santa Barbara said no.
"Big-time schools are still going to get the big-time athletes," he said. "But everybody's got enough good players to win on any given night.
"You can't count on beating a Missouri any more."
The loss to the Tigers ended the careers of Prince, outside hitter Susie Boogaard and libero Ashley Watanabe. Prince led the Wahine in kills, aces, blocks and points, while ranking in the top 20 nationally in hitting percentage and blocking.
"It hasn't hit me yet that it's over," Prince said before leaving yesterday for her Kennewick, Wash., home. "I guess I never really thought that it would all be over by this weekend.
"This was a great team this year and they're going to do great things next year. They're going to be really, really good next season."
Hawaii will return 13 letterwinners, including incoming seniors Kamana'o, reserve setter Cayley Thurlby, and hitters Sarah Mason and Alicia Arnott. Coming back as juniors are middles Juliana Sanders and Kari Gregory, hitter Tara Hittle and defensive specialists Kelly Ong and Raeceen Woolford. Next year's sophomore class has hitters Jamie Houston and Jessica Keefe, and middle Nickie Thomas.
Of this year's freshmen, Houston had the biggest impact, starting 14 matches and finishing second on the team in kills with 318. She was pressed into action earlier than expected due to injuries to Mason and Hittle.
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Friday's four-game loss to Missouri left UH coach Dave Shoji three wins short of 900 for his career, a milestone only two Division I women's coaches have reached.
The biggest question mark will be at libero. Thurlby will be in the mix to fill the void left by Watanabe, who set the single-season dig mark this year of 481; Watanabe also moved into 10th on the school's career list with 973 digs.
Boogaard had a solid career and the team will miss her steady presence, particularly in the passing rotation and as the secondary setter. Mason, who missed eight matches with a sprained right ankle, could move over to the right side to take Boogaard's spot.
Sanders has the edge at middle, with Gregory and Thomas battling it out to replace Prince.
Hawaii brings in two recruits in 6-foot Amber Kaufman (San Jose, Calif.) and setter Dani Mafua (Mid-Pacific). Both could redshirt next year, when the Wahine go for their 11th consecutive Western Athletic Conference title and look to extend the nation's longest conference winning streak, currently at 107 in the regular season and 125 counting WAC tournament play.
"I feel really good about next year," Shoji said. "We'll be bigger in the middle. Victoria was undersized (listed at 6 feet, closer to 5-10) and, even though her offense was outstanding and so was her blocking, we need someone bigger in there.
"Ideally we'd like to have someone as fast but a little bigger. Offensively, she was all you'd ever want in a middle. She could score, but you'd like to have a bigger presence."
The bigger issue will be on the table next week when the coaches meet for their convention to discuss the NCAA volleyball selection committee and the selection process. Coaches have voiced their displeasure with the current format and are hoping to have a say in future tournaments.
"I think the coaches need some sort of representation, not necessarily be on the committee, but have some input," Shoji said. "I don't know if the current committee has a clue as to when something's really unfair.
"They are apparently not going to budge on the travel issue, about the clustering of teams in a region. But I don't know what they're thinking. When you look at the attendance around the country, it's sad. We could have had 8,000-10,000 a night, where they had 300 at UCLA and 400 at USC. I just don't think the committee is looking out for the best interests of our sport."
Hawaii led the country in attendance for the 11th straight year, drawing 131,434 in 18 matches at the Stan Sheriff Center (7,302 average). Nebraska was second with 61,006 (4,358) in 14 matches before this week's regional.
Hawaii administrators said they will put in a bid for upcoming regionals, "but I don't know if that would guarantee us that we'd stay home for the first and second rounds," Shoji said. "I don't know if us hosting a regional changes anything."
Although the outcome of the match against Missouri can never change, the Wahine coach was still second-guessing himself yesterday.
"Looking back, there were some things I could have done, things I hesitated on," he said. "I can always second-guess myself. But I don't blame my team at all. We weren't looking ahead to Penn State or anyone else. We knew when we saw the tapes on Missouri it was going to be difficult."
Asked if winning a national title next season might give him thoughts of early retirement, the 59-year-old said, "a thousand wins is not a goal. Winning another championship is. I'd address (retiring early) if that happens."