Hawaii setter Stephanie Brandt worked her way into the starting lineup this season to fill the spot vacated by Kanoe Kamana'o.
UH’s Brandt shows resilience
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The pressure was going to be tremendous on whoever replaced Kanoe Kamana'o, one of the best players to ever wear a Rainbow Wahine uniform.
No. 13 New Mexico State (19-3, 10-1 WAC) at No. 11 Hawaii (16-4, 10-0)
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: KFVE, Ch. 5
Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
Series: Hawaii leads, 21-1
Next: Louisiana Tech, 5 p.m. Sunday
How could anyone possibly replace an All-America setter, a three-time conference player of the year, a local girl who went from floor-wiper to literally setting the standard for Hawaii volleyball?
The answer wears No. 10, the number worn by Kamana'o during her record-setting career.
Stephanie Brandt didn't transfer from UC Santa Barbara with the idea of making anyone forget Hawaii's all-time leader in assists.
"Oh, gosh, no," said Brandt, who led the Big West in assists and aces as a freshman last season. "I never saw her play, but I know how great she was.
"I'm sure there's the ghost of Kanoe over us, just like the ghost of Robyn Ah Mow. They are part of our program, our tradition and why our team continues to do well."
Brandt knows she has much work to do before she can be considered in the realm of Kamana'o and Ah Mow, a two-time Olympian. But the 11th-ranked Wahine have started to click as Brandt has settled into her role.
Hawaii takes a 16-4 record into tonight's 7 o'clock match with No. 13 New Mexico State.
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WHEN did she first start to feel she was home? It could have been the recruiting trip last January, watching the Hawaii men play Pacific, and being told that "her" crowd would be even larger. Unimaginably larger.
Maybe it was that first lei from a fan after the season-opening loss to Michigan, which she didn't start but -- after coming in to set in Game 3 -- the sophomore hasn't budged from the starting lineup in the last 19 matches.
Or perhaps it was the first time she was out in town and someone yelled, "Eh, Rainbow Wahine."
All Stephanie Brandt knows is this is where she was meant to be. And she's happy, which is all she ever wanted for her collegiate volleyball experience.
UC Santa Barbara wasn't it. Brandt led the Big West in assists and aces, made the conference's all-freshman team and helped the Gauchos into the NCAA tournament ...
"But I didn't like it there," said Brandt, who committed early her junior year at University High in Irvine, Calif. "I was torn between being loyal to my team and being happy.
"When the (UH) coaches contacted me, how could I say no? You can't."
Not after seeing the tape of last year's senior night. Not after finding a welcoming atmosphere during her recruiting trip and the beaches as good, if not better, than the ones she frequented near her Irvine home.
Still, it wasn't easy coming into a new team for the second consecutive summer. There were new teammates, a new system, new competition for the position.
"It was like being a freshman all over again, having to get acclimated," Brandt said. "That part was hard. What wasn't hard was the team was so welcoming. I felt I belonged from the beginning."
She had big shoes to fill, those of All-American and UH career assist leader Kanoe Kamana'o. She had a daily battle with redshirt freshman Dani Mafua for the starting job during preseason practice, a battle Mafua won briefly, starting against Michigan.
"It was a very tough situation to walk into, to replace one of the best players in the program," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said. "But she's been so resilient. She's taken a lot of hits, a lot of criticism. It doesn't faze her. She just works harder.
"She's a very tough kid, a lot tougher than I could have imagined. Maybe it's having played for (UCSB coach) Kathy Gregory. It just bounces off her. She doesn't get down on herself and stays positive."
Which hasn't been easy this season with Hawaii's inconsistent passing. Brandt has done more than her share of scrambling to get to the ball, and continues to lead the Western Athletic Conference in assists (12.82 apg).
"I think she's gotten better, more consistent, as the season has gone on," said UH associate coach Kari Ambrozich, a former Wahine setter. "She's had to make the adjustments to the outside hitters and has helped us get better swings at the ball.
"She still has a ways to go, but she's learning what her hitters can do, when to go to certain people, what the best matchups are. She's figuring it out."
The growing pains have been obvious, especially to those spoiled by Kamana'o's ability. But Brandt is just a sophomore, with two juniors and a sophomore for targets on the outside.
"I think she's getting better each day," said junior hitter Jamie Houston, the team's kill leader. "She's done an awesome job to come in and become the setter.
"She does what she can with what she gets, so if we don't pass well, she can't be consistent. We need to pass to help her."
"She's getting used to us and we're getting used to her," junior hitter Tara Hittle said. "She gets better all the time."
Brandt's geology test yesterday likely wasn't as tough as tonight's test against No. 13 New Mexico State.
The Wahine are coming off a very disappointing loss at No. 1 Nebraska, where all the progress made in the 13 previous matches was seemingly swept away in 94 minutes.
"We definitely had a breakdown in technique," Brandt said of Sunday's loss. "We learned that we need to focus all the time and we can't forget the basics.
"Twenty matches in, I'm feeling more confidence in myself, my role and with my team. How far can we go this year? I don't want to jinx anything. Let's just say that our hard work will pay off."