STAR-BULLETIN / 2006
Senior Kari Gregory is expected to get the starting nod at middle for the Rainbow Wahine.
Wahine improving each day
Willoughby adds spice to practice for Wahine
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With all the question marks floating around on the practice court, it was nice to have a given during yesterday's scrimmage. And someone with an objective eye.
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Three-time All-American Kim Willoughby was in the mix during yesterday's scrimmage at the Stan Sheriff Center, reminding the Hawaii women's volleyball team of its legacy and its potential.
"It's amazing to have someone like her to be out there with us," said Rainbow Wahine junior Jamie Houston who, like Willoughby, is expected to carry the hitting load on the left side. "Having her out there makes us better. She does things that the top teams like Nebraska will do against us. It's a lot of fun to have the national player of the year (2003), an All-American playing against you."
Yesterday was Willoughby's third practice with the Wahine. She has seen improvement every time.
"I was kind of surprised about the huge difference from the first practice to today, in blocking, defending, all-around play," said Willoughby, who may next play in Italy later this year. "I've seen three different teams show up and they're going to keep getting better. The craziest thing is they are all on the same page and they're going to be able to change the lineup 50 different times and there's not going to be a drop-off.
"They'll come into their own as the season progresses. It's going to be interesting."
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The traffic jam Dave Shoji encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border yesterday morning was nothing compared to the congestion he sees on his team's depth chart. Putting together a starting lineup for this Friday's season opener is in need of more than an HOV lane.
The Hawaii women's volleyball coach arrived in time to take in yesterday's scrimmage at the Stan Sheriff Center, a competitive four sets watched by some 60 booster club members. The spectators left impressed.
So was Shoji, who noticed an improvement just in the two days of practice he had missed while on the mainland watching son Erik compete for the U.S. at the Boys Youth World Volleyball Championships.
"We had very good energy and, at times, looked like a volleyball team," said Shoji, beginning his 33rd year at Manoa. "We're getting better every day.
"But, no, we're no closer to a starting lineup."
At least for Friday's opener against Michigan, expect Wahine senior middles Juliana Sanders and Kari Gregory to start. The two took big swings, were effective with their step-out moves and were solid in blocking.
Junior outside Jamie Houston is a given. Named last week as the preseason conference player of the year, "She is our main attacker, our best attacker," Shoji said.
A starting setter may be named as early as Wednesday. Both redshirt freshmen Dani Mafua and sophomore transfer Stephanie Brandt were efficient yesterday. Brandt, who led the Big West in aces while at UC Santa Barbara last season, cranked out two consecutive aces in leading her team to a come-from-behind 21-19 win in Game 1.
"Stephanie's probably our best server," Shoji said. "We'll probably use both setters next weekend."
The season-opening Asics Rainbow Invitational gives the 10th-ranked Wahine three straight days of competition that may help settle a lineup. But don't count on it.
Shoji had given the edge at libero to freshman Elizabeth Ka'aihue. Yesterday, he said it belonged to incumbent sophomore Jayme Lee.
"But it's still close," he said.
So is the battle on the right side among sophomores Amber Kaufman, Aneli Cubi-Otineru and junior Jessica Keefe. Kaufman has the best elevation, Cubi-Otineru the most potential to terminate a play and Keefe is the steadiest.
Cubi-Otineru, a junior college All-American as a freshman at Southern Idaho in 2005, also is taking swings on the left. Her versatility in the front-row rotation is an asset.
Junior Tara Hittle should be the second left-side hitter. She's a solid passer who is regaining her form after sitting out most of last season with an injury.
"There's no real surprises out there," Shoji said. "Everyone is playing up to expectations. There's decisions to be made and it will come down to who we think is most game ready.
"We're a little too up and down out there. We're looking for more consistency."
How close was yesterday's scrimmage with different lineups? Brandt's teams won Games 1 and 2 21-19 and 21-17; Mafua's teams won Games 3 and 4 21-17 and 15-12.
"I'd give us a B-minus today," Houston said.
"We're getting better every day and we have a couple more days to improve before we open. We have some more kinks to work out, but we'll be fine."