FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Hawaii's Aneli Cubi-Otineru's goal this season is "to play hard and to keep getting better."
Wahine hope to bounce back
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The cheers were noticeably louder Saturday night when Aneli Cubi-Otineru was announced as a starter against Colorado State.
UCLA at Louisville, 5 p.m.
Kansas State vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.
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The sophomore outside hitter for Hawaii noticed it, too, knowing that the increased volume was not completely due to her large extended family watching her Division I starting debut at the Stan Sheriff Center.
The roar didn't just acknowledged Cubi-Otineru's performance of the previous night, when she came off the bench in Game 2 against Michigan, finishing with 16 kills and 15 digs in a five-game loss.
It was also for the homecoming, delayed by two years, of a high-profile local prep volleyball standout.
"I heard it," said Cubi-Otineru, competing for a permanent starting spot in the Rainbow Wahine lineup.
"I didn't think it was added pressure. It's support. They're pushing me.
"It's a whole different thing when you're raised to play volleyball here. I grew up playing and the Wahine were my idols, what I wanted to be. I hope some day that I can be a little girl's idol."
Whether she starts tonight against No. 25 Kansas State or comes off the bench, whether she plays left-side hitter or on the right, Cubi-Ontineru has her goals: to play hard and to keep getting better.
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IF Mensa had a category for volleyball, Aneli Cubi-Otineru would have qualified for membership long ago. Her IQ in the sport is that high ... possibly the highest on this year's Hawaii team.
It's easy to understand the "how." It's in the DNA, beginning with grandmother Ruby and continuing down the lineage to her mom, Del, and her sister, former Rainbow Wahine Babes Kalulu.
To understand the "why" is also easy. Just picture a 2-year-old Aneli begging big sister Babes, "let's play volleyball."
"It was pretty irritating," Kalulu, the director of volleyball operations at the College of Southern Idaho said. "I'd be getting home from practice, I was tired. She'd keep saying, 'Can we play? Can we play?'
"She's always loved the sport. She knows the game so well, wants to win and will do anything to get it."
But to get to where she is today -- one of the most versatile athletes on the UH roster -- Cubi-Otineru took the long way home. Much, much longer than that of her high school commute from Haleiwa to Punahou.
The all-state player, who led the Buffanblu to state championships as a junior and senior, committed to Hawaii. Other schools were interested, including USC, but "they knew my heart was here," she said.
But because Cubi-Otineru was a non-qualifier, she ended up at the College of Southern Idaho, a junior college volleyball power. She helped the Golden Eagles to a 50-2 record and the 2005 NJCAA national championship, earning NJCAA and AVCA All-America honors.
The next season, CSI was ineligible for postseason play due to recruiting violations. Cubi-Otineru decided to redshirt.
"It was hard sitting out, but it was a blessing in disguise," she said. "I worked on getting my (associate's) degree and it meant that I got to come home to play for three years instead of two."
It also meant a job for her sister.
"My coach asked who taught me how to play," Cubi-Otineru said. "I said my sister. He wanted to meet her and then offered her a job."
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Former Punahou standout Aneli Cubi-Otineru spent two years away from Hawaii before returning to play for the Rainbow Wahine.
Kalulu, who lives about 2 miles from the Twin Falls, Idaho, campus, said she misses her sister but speaks with her every day. She's also happy that Cubi-Otineru is getting to live out the dream that Kalulu had ... playing for Hawaii.
"I miss her a lot," said Kalulu, who left UH after her freshman year in 1989 to start a family. "I've watched the games on the computer.
"She asks for tips. I just tell her to go for her goals, play hard and to play with her heart."
At 5-foot-10, Cubi-Otineru is undersized for a Division I outside hitter. But she also hits the hardest ball on the team and makes up for her lack of size with her overall court presence.
"She's one of those kids who can play the entire game, who knows the game," said Wahine coach Dave Shoji. "She does have a very high volleyball IQ, but at this level, she has to match that with the physicality.
"It's an issue that she's shorter; she's never going to hit over anyone. But my opinion of her hasn't changed. We wanted her out of high school and we want her on the court."
But where? She played both left- and right-side hitter during last weekend's ASICS Invitational. She could do the same at the Hawaiian Airlines Classic, which begins tonight and runs through Monday.
"I don't care," she said. "Left's nice because that's where I've always played, but right is fine. I just need to make the adjustment.
"I know my blocking could be better and I want to make everything better. I'm not satisfied. It's like I've made the journey, have reached my destination, but still there's more work to do."
She's quickly worked her way into the Wahine ohana and has become part of the "Polynesian Triangle," which includes freshman setter Dani Mafua and freshman libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue.
"She's a sister I can turn to, on and off the court," Mafua said. "We're really close as friends and teammates. She has my back and she knows I have her back. That's comfortable to know.
"She brings a lot of life and energy when she's on the court. We've always played against each other, and it's great being on the same team. She's always been consistent, is always getting better."
Cubi-Otineru's long-term goal is to play for the U.S. national team -- she had a tryout this past summer as a libero -- but the immediate one is to help Hawaii turn around the disappointing 1-2 start.
"I know it will happen," she said. "We know what we have to work on and we have the rest of the season to get better and better."