JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii coach Dave Shoji watched his players whiz by yesterday while running drills during the first day of Rainbow Wahine volleyball practice at the Stan Sheriff Center. "It's exciting," Shoji said as he began his 33rd season at the helm. "We've been looking forward to this day for a long time, and it's finally here." CLICK FOR LARGE
Healthy Rainbow Wahine open double-days
Shoji, Wahine thrilled about new year
STORY SUMMARY »
The M*A*S*H unit which had been the Hawaii women's volleyball team is no more.
No more knee braces, walking boots or thigh wraps.
Healthy was the theme when two-a-day practices began for the Rainbow Wahine yesterday at the Stan Sheriff Center.
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Staying healthy will be the season-long goal, especially for the trio of juniors -- Tara Hittle, Nickie Thomas and Jessica Keefe -- who lost a chunk of last year with season-ending injuries.
"We've got a lot of great players at every position, a lot of people who can push each other to be better," Hittle, named yesterday as the team captain, said. "I'm back, ready to go, healed, healthy, excited and happy.
"We have hungry people. It makes you hungry when you can't practice, can't play, can't even be on the bench at regionals. It's not fun. It gives you a new appreciation for everything. You realize what you miss when you can't do it."
Hawaii has two weeks to find a starting lineup for its season opener against Michigan on Aug. 24. Much of the focus will be on finding the replacement for four-time All-American and four-year starting setter Kanoe Kamana'o.
The two candidates are freshman Dani Mafua, who spent her redshirt season training under Kamana'o, and sophomore Stephanie Brandt, the starting setter at UC Santa Barbara last season.
"Obviously, setting is the position where there will be a lot of focus," associate coach Kari Anderson Ambrozich said. "But there are exciting things happening at every position, healthy competition at every position."
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You think it would get old ... except every year is a new one. That's what has kept Dave Shoji coming back.
The excitement of the unknown. The challenge of making good players better and very good players great ones.
"It's exciting," Shoji said as he began his 33rd season as coach of the Hawaii women's volleyball team. "We've been looking forward to this day for a long time and it's finally here.
"Everyone is optimistic and excited, and we want to keep that attitude all season long. We'll be working hard to find the best seven players to start that first match and go from there."
The enthusiasm was there from top to bottom, from the four seniors to the newcomers.
"The only word that comes to mind is exciting," senior middle Kari Gregory said. "We're young in a lot of ways but the majority of us have played together for a while.
"Everyone has worked hard in the offseason and it's not individuals that I see, but a team. I see us meshing already. It's going to be really exciting."
Gregory and senior Juliana Sanders anchor a middle that led the Western Athletic Conference in blocks (3.52 bpg). Gregory (1.59 bpg) and Sanders (1.48) ranked 1-2.
But strong competition again will come from junior middle Nickie Thomas, who had three starts before a season-ending ACL tear. Shoji said true freshman Amanda Simmons is expected to be in the mix.
Simmons did not participate yesterday as both she and freshman hitter Stephanie Ferrell had not been cleared to practice. Ferrell, who did not arrive from Los Angeles until last night, was expected to be cleared in time for this afternoon's session.
"We have a lot to choose from," Shoji said. "If anyone has a leg up, it's (junior left-side hitter Jamie) Houston. She proved herself last year.
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii's Elise Duggins, front, did stretching exercises with her Rainbow Wahine volleyball teammates at the first day of practice yesterday at the Stan Sheriff Center. CLICK FOR LARGE
"Everyone else is pretty much in a battle, from libero to setter to middle to outside."
Much of the spotlight will be on the setting battle between redshirt freshman Dani Mafua and sophomore Stephanie Brandt, the starting setter for UC Santa Barbara last season. They know they have big shoes to fill after the departure of four-time All-American Kanoe Kamana'o, the program's career assist leader.
"I'm very excited about the season," Mafua said. "I don't think there's any pressure. I'm just going to play my game and be myself, not anyone else.
"We know the expectations are there but in a good way. I'm ready. It's going to be good."
"Everyone's got such a great work ethic," Brandt said. "I'm here because I wanted to play for one of the top programs in the country. It's a program with the reputation of producing great athletes."
The athleticism of the team likely will be even better showcased, if Kari Anderson Ambrozich's prediction comes true.
"We'll have better ball-control this season," the associate coach and former Wahine setter said. "And that will allow us to play more exciting volleyball because it give us more options."