STAR-BULLETIN / OCT. 2006
Jamie Houston is a sure bet to open at left-side hitter for the Rainbow Wahine this season.
Shoji ponders lineup
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Call it what you want.
A photo finish.
A dead heat.
So many choices, too few spots.
Such is the dilemma for the 10th-ranked Hawaii women's volleyball team as it approaches Friday's season opener against Michigan. With only today's and tomorrow's practices remaining, Rainbow Wahine coach Dave Shoji is not quite sure who will be on the Stan Sheriff Center court against the Wolverines when that first whistle blows.
The most key decision he'll make is at setter, where redshirt freshman Dani Mafua and sophomore transfer Stephanie Brandt have been locked in a battle that has been too close to call since practice began Aug. 8.
The easiest choice will be at left-side hitter where junior All-American Jamie Houston's name is one of the few written in pen. Don't be surprised if some of Shoji's salary this week goes toward pencils with big erasers and headache medicine.
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JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Wahine captain Tara Hittle will start with Jamie Houston on the left side for Dave Shoji's national championship contenders.
Just like the proverbially old woman in the shoe, Dave Shoji has so much athletic talent, it's going to be interesting to see what the Hawaii women's volleyball coach will do.
His first attempt at a starting lineup comes this Friday with the season opener against Michigan.
He's got what he wants ... competition at all positions, newcomers pushing veterans for starting spots and a relatively healthy team. But the options -- albeit good ones -- are so many that the Rainbow Wahine lineup puzzle will likely be a season-long work in progress.
Do you go with redshirt freshman Dani Mafua, who trained last year under one of the all-time great setters in Kanoe Kamana'o? Mafua connects well with her middles and puts up a big block.
Or should it be sophomore transfer Stephanie Brandt, who led the Big West in assists and aces as a freshman starter at UC Santa Barbara? Nothing substitutes for real match experience.
The problem, according to the coaching staff, is that the two are equally good and with equally different styles.
"Too close to call," Shoji said yesterday. "We'll make a decision tomorrow. I have to make the call as to what's best for the weekend."
At first glance, it would seem an easy choice at middle blocker where seniors Kari Gregory and Juliana Sanders -- both returning All-Western Athletic Conference selections -- have performed brilliantly at times since their freshman seasons. But freshman Amanda Simmons has pushed hard during preseason and is ahead of expectations.
There's also the luxury of having senior Caroline Blood, whose career started on the Wahine softball field. Although not a potential starter, she is much more than just a tall practice player with good instincts and a quick arm.
If there is a given it's All-American Jamie Houston on the left side. She was sixth in the country last year, averaging 5.49 kills a game, and showed the ability to take over a match when putting down 35 kills in last year's regional semifinal win over USC.
The good news for Houston is she won't have to pass as much as she did the past two years. With the return of junior Tara Hittle (foot surgery), solid choices at libero (WAC All-freshman Jayme Lee and athletic freshman Elizabeth Ka'aihue), and a core of defensive specialists, passing should be much improved.
Hittle is the leading choice at "L2" the second left-side spot. But it will be hard to keep sophomore hitter Aneli Cubi-Otineru out of the lineup because of her versatility and volleyball smarts. A junior college All-American, Cubi-Otineru is hitting the heaviest ball during practice.
Cubi-Otineru also could move to the right where the competition is sophomore Amber Kaufman and junior Jessica Keefe.
Kaufman has incredible elevation -- high jumps 6-feet -- and Keefe had earned a starting spot midway through last season before being injured.
If anyone redshirts, it would likely be freshman outside Stephanie Ferrell, who missed three days last week for a funeral in Los Angeles.
Shoji said he hadn't begun to think where his "little people" (defensive specialists) would fit into the rotation. He has senior Raeceen Woolford, junior Elise Duggins and sophomore Rayna Kitaguchi all back with experience.
If Mafua were to start at setter, Brandt would be a viable option in the back row for her serve and ballhandling.
"This year is definitely a different challenge than last," associate coach Mike Sealy said. "Last year with the injuries we did not have the personnel. This year we have more than adequate personnel and good competition everywhere."
With matches Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Shoji anticipates using a lot of players during the ASICS Invitational.
"I use a lot of players normally," he said. "Besides three wins, I want to see the efforts of the players rewarded. They've worked hard this summer and it would be nice to have them rewarded by playing well and winning."
Hawaii depth chart
As of yesterday's practice
Dani Mafua or Stephanie Brandt
Left Side (2)
Jamie Houston and Tara Hittle
Right Side (1)
Middle Blocker (2)
Kari Gregory and Juliana Sanders
Defensive Specialist (as needed)