JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Freshman libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue said her job now is "to get a good pass or dig so my hitters can get a good set," but the Punahou graduate said she still misses spiking the ball.
The freshman libero starts her college career at Hawaii with on-the-job training
STORY SUMMARY »
It's all about the transitions.
From floor wiper to floor general on defense.
Who: Santa Clara (5-1) vs.Wichita State (4-2), 5 p.m. Eastern Washington (1-5) vs. Hawaii (3-3), 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: KFVE, Ch. 5
Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
Series: Hawaii leads Eastern Washington 3-0
From high school to college.
From setting and hitting to being permanently behind the 3-meter line as a libero.
Freshman Elizabeth Ka'aihue is slowly adjusting to her new role on the Hawaii volleyball team. She's had to change her mind-set, become more disciplined as she continues her on-the-job training.
"The biggest change is I can't hit any more," Ka'aihue said when preparing for tonight's match against Eastern Washington.
"I'm just back there, the captain of the back row. My job is to get a good pass or dig so my hitters can get a good set."
From fifth through eighth grade, the Punahou graduate spent hours as a floor wiper for Rainbow Wahine matches at the Stan Sheriff Center. She looks at the young girls now and thinks, "That used to be me."
"It did pass through my mind that maybe I might be playing for the Wahine," she said. "It's so weird to think about it. Maybe one day, one of them (the current floor wipers) will be a Wahine."
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TRUST is one of those intangible -- yet so essential -- elements in athletics.
Trust in coaches and their game plan. Trust in teammates and their abilities. Trust in oneself ... above all else.
No. 16 Hawaii has placed a lot of trust in the hands of a true freshman, the first freshman libero to be awarded a scholarship. In return, Elizabeth Ka'aihue has already hinted at the defensive greatness yet to come.
Last week, Ka'aihue broke the 12-year-old record for digs in a Hawaiian Airlines Classic match with 31 against Louisville, a mark set by Therese Crawford in 1995. She also established a UH record for digs in a four-game match, breaking by one the total shared by Teee Williams (1988) and Kanoe Kamana'o (2004).
Not bad for someone four matches into her career and still learning the libero position.
"She's still making the transition from high school to college," said Ryan Tsuji, the Wahine team manager and one of Ka'aihue's club coaches the past two seasons. "It's a much different game and she's still adjusting.
"But the thing about her is she always wants to get better. She has great skills, great hands and court sense. The match against Louisville was a good indication of where we thought she'd be at."
No one who saw her play at an early age or help Punahou to two state titles had doubts.
"She's a smart, calm, athletic team player," said former Wahine All-American Joey Akeo Miyashiro, one of Ka'aihue's first club coaches. "She has 'big eyes' in the way of being able to look at what is happening on the court but be several steps ahead of predicting what may be the possibilities.
" 'Lizzie' is passionate, fearless and confident while at the same time humble and very grounded."
Ka'aihue also has a quickness that is deceptive for her 5-foot-8 atypical libero physique.
"She amazes me, the way she gets to those balls," said sophomore Aneli Cubi-Otineru, Ka'aihue's Punahou teammate for two state title seasons. "She was a setter and hitter in high school, so she still has that mentality. It's good because she knows what they're thinking.
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UH's Elizabeth Ka'aihue has played in four career matches, but already holds two records.
"I love the way she plays. She has that energy, something about her you can't explain. She'll bring that smile and her humor, and you laugh because she's laughing. She's like my little sister."
The two connected several times last week against Kansas State. Of Ka'aihue's six assists, three were on point-scoring sets to Cubi-Otineru.
That comfort level and trust is based on years of practicing and playing together. That's something that the Wahine -- with four new starters -- are working on.
"We're building it," Ka'aihue said. "We stepped it up for the (HAL) tournament, then didn't show up for UCLA.
"But I think we're growing as a team. It's only the beginning of the season. All these losses have given us a taste in our mouth that we don't like."
Coach Dave Shoji hasn't liked what he's seen at times from the Wahine (3-3). But he's been encouraged by Ka'aihue's progress.
"She's shown signs of what we want in that position," Shoji said. "Right now we need more consistency."
The battle for starting libero continues between Ka'aihue and sophomore Jayme Lee, the latter an all-conference honoree last season. The two continue to push each other in practice, with Lee seeing more action as a defensive specialist.
Ka'aihue is the better all-around athlete, having grown up in a very competitive, athletic family in Kailua. Father Kala was a standout baseball player at Punahou, going on to play in the minor leagues before finishing as a coach with the Hawaii Islanders; brothers Kala Jr. and Kila went from Iolani to current minor league contracts.
"Family is the reason I stayed home to play," Elizabeth said. "Playing in the arena, day after day, with all the fans, it's pretty motivating.
"The fans have been hard on us, but we'll turn it around. We've got to trust each other, trust the coaches and the system they want. If we start doubting, we're not a team anymore. I think we're learning that."