UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII VOLLEYBALL
Shoji busy as 32nd season nears
The UH volleyball coach is closing in on 900 wins
Oldest son Kawika is headed to Mexico with the U.S. Junior National Team to compete in this week's NORCECA Continental Men's Junior Championship.
Younger son Erik is at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., trying to make the final roster of the U.S. Youth National Team that will compete in the NORCECA Continental Boys Championship this month in the Dominican Republic.
And where is Dave Shoji?
The Hawaii volleyball coach is three days away from beginning his 32nd season with the Rainbow Wahine and three wins away from his 900th victory.
But Shoji, who is with Erik at the OTC tryouts, is not thinking about becoming the third women's coach to reach 900 victories. Nor is he thinking about how soon it could come after opening with Pepperdine on Aug. 25-26.
Another three wins would be a good thing ... and those will happen within the first few weeks of the season. But five would be a better number, as in a fifth national championship.
The drought is approaching 20 years. Longer, much longer, than Shoji thought it would take ... especially after winning four championships in nine years ... three in six.
"There's a lot of good teams out there and there are more of them every year," said Shoji, who will be back in Honolulu when his team officially opens camp Wednesday. "Can we win this year? You'd like to think the season will turn out a certain way, but it rarely does.
"Our main issue is our health. We have a lot of people nursing injuries, the nagging kind. They're not 100 percent healthy.
"And our schedule is pretty brutal, much like it's been the past few years. But I wouldn't want it any other way. We want to be a good team and we have to play good teams to do that."
Although not as brutal as last season -- with six top-10 teams in the first 10 matches -- Hawaii's schedule includes a number of teams expected to be ranked in the Top 25 when the preseason national poll is announced tomorrow. Stanford, the likely No. 1 pick, Florida, UCLA and Notre Dame will all be in the Stan Sheriff Center in the next two months.
But more than the schedule, Shoji has concerns about the roster. Good concerns, but concerns nonetheless.
The only starting position set is setter, where three-time All-American Kanoe Kamana'o will continue to add to her school-record assist numbers over the next few months.
Reserve setter Cayley Thurlby is expected to be somewhere on the court. There was actually discussion to change her position designation to "U" for "Utility." The senior will get reps at setter, outside hitter, designated server and possibly libero.
If there is a real dilemma, it is at libero, where a number of players are vying to replace the departed Ashley Watanabe. Junior Raeceen Woolford has been in the program the longest and "has paid her dues," according to Shoji.
He also likes the strides walk-on sophomore Jayme Lee made during the offseason. But there's a court full of players trying to earn the spot, including transfer walk-ons Elise Duggins, sister of former Wahine All-American middle Lauren, and Spenser Rigg, who averaged 4.12 digs as a freshman libero last year at Barry.
Other possibilities include junior defensive specialist Kelly Ong, back after missing spring ball, and sophomore Makana Recca, a Kamehameha graduate, who transferred after a season as a defensive specialist-libero at San Francisco.
"We have many players trying to win that spot," Shoji said. "It's a wide-open situation and a great opportunity for someone to step up in the preseason."
Hawaii's two incoming freshmen -- setter Dani Mafua and middle Amber Kaufman -- may redshirt. That is the logical choice for Mafua, but Kaufman is such a dynamic player that she could play this season.
Kaufman will remind many of recent graduate All-American Victoria Prince -- undersized in the middle but with explosive speed, quickness and power.
With or without Kaufman, the battle for starting middles will continue unabated. Back are juniors Juliana Sanders and Kari Gregory, both being pushed hard by sophomore Nickie Thomas.
"Nickie is probably the healthiest of the three right now and certainly has to be mentioned right there with Gregory and Sanders," Shoji said. "It's pretty wide open."
Heading into camp, senior Sarah Mason, junior Tara Hittle and sophomore Jamie Houston are penciled in as starters. One of them likely will move to the right side -- all are capable of playing there.
"We'll use whoever has the best chance to help the team," Shoji said. "We have to find the right combination, the right alignment. And (sophomore hitter Jessica) Keefe is very adequate, left or right.
"We're going to look at Amber's skills out there, too. She's played all her life in the middle, but I'm more inclined to put her on the outside. We'll keep that option open."
Lost in the crowd appears to be senior Alicia Arnott, who led the team in kills as a sophomore.
"She has to work her way back into the mix," Shoji said.
While the Wahine are the odds-on favorites to win the WAC for an 11th straight year, the conference winning streak -- at 107 the longest currently in the country -- may be in jeopardy.
The biggest test will be the Oct. 12-13 road trip where Hawaii is at Louisiana Tech that Thursday then needs to get to New Mexico State for a Friday match. Last season, the Wahine fell behind 0-2 at NMSU before pulling it out in five.
"That road trip is going to be difficult," Shoji said. "We're going to have to play a very good team after traveling that day. I know we're going to have two tough matches with them.
"The streak is going to end at some point, nothing lasts forever. It could be this year. But I don't see us losing at the WAC tournament."
The carrot at the end of the NCAA stick -- finally -- is hosting a regional. There's no guarantee that Hawaii will be at home for the first- and second-round matches, but at least the Wahine know they won't be shipped out of the region a la 2004 to Colorado State or 2005 to Texas.
"It would make sense to keep us home (for the first two matches)," Shoji said. "But I won't bet on it."
And Shoji won't bet on a possible final-four setup. He counts Stanford, Nebraska, Florida, Texas, Penn State and Washington as solid contenders.
"It's pretty wide-open this year," he said. "I don't see anyone with a real dominating team. And I'm sure there will be three or four other teams in the mix you didn't expect.
"Can we win it? If everything falls into place. We've got to stay healthy, get a break on the (NCAA Tournament) schedule.
"What you need is a little luck, have your players step up and have great years. If you're a real volleyball fan, you're looking at the teams with veteran setters. Those are the teams that can step up and get far in the tournament."
A team like Hawaii with a senior setter?
"Yes, a team like ours," Shoji said. "We've had a lot of really good players come through who haven't won (a title) but certainly Kanoe deserves to go out on top. She has the all-time assist record and that's no easy thing to accomplish in this program.
"I know she'd trade that in, and all her awards, for a championship."
That quest to make it to Omaha's Qwest Center in December begins Wednesday.