UH freshman Amber Kaufman has always gone her own way
AMBER Kaufman likes being in control.
It may be why she is better, she says, at track than volleyball, where she can determine the outcome, where she doesn't have to depend on anyone else in order to win.
"If I don't do well, it's all me," the freshman middle for the Hawaii women's volleyball team said. "I'm the one who can change it."
Ironically, Kaufman's changes have made her more of a team player. From someone who coaches didn't feel should be considered for all-league honors as a junior to Branham High's team captain and division co-MVP as a senior, averaging 19 kills, 10 digs, seven blocks and five aces a match.
From someone who didn't have academics as a high priority to someone who had a 3.55 GPA as a senior, realizing that grades -- just like her 5-feet, 10 1/4-inch high jump, second-best in the country -- could take her somewhere.
She landed in Hawaii ... and couldn't be happier.
A twist of fate -- sophomore middle Nickie Thomas' ACL injury -- turned Kaufman's planned redshirt year to toast. Down to two middle blockers last Friday against Cal Poly, Rainbow Wahine coach Dave Shoji inserted Kaufman when trailing 11-9 in the must-win Game 4 with positive results.
Hawaii was able to rally from as far down as 19-12 in Game 4 and went on to win in five.
"I was scared and worried that I would be terrible and get subbed right back out," Kaufman said. "The first couple of plays was an out-of-body experience. I couldn't tell you what was happening."
She does remember launching her first kill attempt into the stands, hearing some boos from the crowd and laughter from her own teammates. Although Kaufman feels that "everyone" will remember that hitting error, more than likely, "everyone" will remember how she and the rest of the Wahine avoided losing a fifth home match, something that has never happened at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"She's very, very hard on herself," Shoji said. "She's got to get over that. She's not going to play perfect in practice or in every game. She needs to shake things off, worry about the next play."
That drive to excel has, Kaufman said, been misinterpreted. Where she sees it as being aggressive, others see it as anger. What she considers being passionate, others have seen as having an attitude.
And where dying her hair her favorite color -- pink -- because she likes being different, others saw it as punk ... and worse
"It's already been said in the newspapers that people thought I'd go nowhere in life, that I'd end up in some gutter doing drugs," Kaufman said of writeups in her hometown of San Jose, Calif. "I don't appreciate that. I'm not a crazy hooligan just because I used to have pink hair.
"Some of the things I've done if I were a guy and playing football, the coach would be, 'Way to go.' When I'm playing I obviously get into the game, but I've never hurt anyone out of my anger. People are so quick to judge and say things when they don't know you."
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Freshman Amber Kaufman helped Hawaii rally to a five-game victory over Cal Poly last week.
People do know athletic talent and Kaufman has it. One of the conditions she had while being recruited was to be able to do both volleyball and track. (Kaufman also competes in the long jump and triple jump).
Shoji embraced the idea. Here was a 6-foot player with explosive quickness and a 10-4 touch. And Kaufman just turned 18 last month.
"Her doing the high jump will help her volleyball," Shoji said. "That's what our sport is all about, too, vertical and jumping. She has the ability to play higher above the net than most people."
Kaufman already is being compared favorably to All-American Victoria Prince, who led Hawaii in kills as a senior last season. To Kaufman, it's flattery; to Shoji, it's an expectation.
"She's got to be like a Victoria," Shoji said. "She's undersized as a middle, and she'll be undersized on the right, if that's where she ends up.
"She's not a complete volleyball player, she hasn't had the opportunity to really play defense. I think she can do it. She's an athlete and might just end up being a passer for us somewhere down the line."
Kaufman came to the sport late, first playing club volleyball as a freshman. She managed to squeeze it in between basketball and track.
"During my sophomore year it was school-volleyball, school-basketball, school-track," she said. "And I was doing club volleyball, club basketball and summer track. If I had to stick with one sport, I'd be bored.
"Doing one sport just doesn't seem right to me. I don't know where'd I'd be if I wasn't playing. I think sports keep people on track and focused."
The Rainbow Wahine were ranked No. 1 in 2004 when Kaufman gave an early verbal commitment. Hawaii is No. 15 heading into tonight's Western Athletic Conference opener with Fresno State.
Whether Kaufman plays, or how much, hasn't been decided. She said her approach to practice this week has changed a little.
"It's not like I wasn't working hard before," she said. "I feel like I have to perform every single day. If you're not giving your best you shouldn't be here.
"But now I feel like I have more of a purpose on the team, that I can help out. Getting a couple of kills last week gave me some confidence. I'm realizing that playing at this level is possible."
As much as she is enjoying living in Hawaii -- "Who wouldn't? I'm so lucky to be here" -- Kaufman said she's looking forward to the first road trip of the season next week. Hawaii plays at Fresno State on Friday and then at San Jose State, Kaufman's hometown, the next day.
"I'm really excited," she said. "There's going to be so many friends and family there."
And who they see may surprise them: An Amber Kaufman in control of a bright future.