Aloha ball arrives for UH seniors
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Tomorrow is more than senior night for the Hawaii volleyball team.
For two of the four Rainbow Wahine seniors, it's also their graduation ceremonies.
Neither Kari Gregory nor Caroline Blood plan to go through their respective commencement exercises. Gregory receives her degree next month and Blood -- who'll finish out via an on-line class next semester -- in May.
Both expect to have quite a bit of family here, some of whom followed the team to the Western Athletic Conference in New Mexico last week and now to Honolulu this week.
"I'll have 20 people here," Gregory, a reserve middle, said. "It's too expensive and too much to ask family and friends to make it back twice in a few weeks to see me 'walk.'
"To me, it's more important for them to be here (this week)."
The two kama'aina players -- middle Juliana Sanders and defensive specialist Raeceen Woolford -- both plan to go through spring commencement, giving them yet another lei-smothering experience.
Of the four, only Sanders is expected to start this week as No. 11 Hawaii (24-5) concludes the regular season tonight and tomorrow against Loyola Marymount (16-11). As she did last week at the WAC tournament, Gregory should see a bit of time against the Lions.
For Woolford and Blood, it will likely be two more long nights on the sideline.
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In another time, in another place, things would be different.
In another era, Raeceen Woolford could have been a star.
In another program, Caroline Blood should have been a starter.
But the here and now of their reality is just that. The would-could-should careers of the two Hawaii senior reserves didn't translate into the playing experience both worked hard to have.
"I've told Caroline that she could have been a very good player in a lot of other programs," Rainbow Wahine coach Dave Shoji said. "She's got great skills and is a great athlete. Unfortunately, she's been behind a lot of good players here.
"And Raeceen ... she's a lot like Mahina Eleneki (the 5-foot-7 overachiever on UH's 1987 NCAA championship team). She's one of those people teams need. She could have played a lot of places -- she was recruited as an outside hitter -- and she chose to stick it out here. I'm grateful for that."
But why stick it out? Why not go somewhere else to play?
The draw of being a Rainbow Wahine was that strong.
It was an easy decision for Woolford, who arrived at UH at the same time as her Iolani teammate, Kanoe Kamana'o. While Kamana'o was ensconced in the starting lineup from freshman year on, Woolford redshirted, backed up Ashley Watanabe for two seasons before losing out as the starting libero to Jayme Lee last season.
Still, Woolford contributed as a junior DS, getting her first career kill, with 17 aces and 163 digs in playing all 35 matches last year. She's only seen the court briefly in 11 matches this season.
"Has it been hard?" Woolford asked rhetorically. "Of course, but I don't think my story is significantly different that others who have been through this. Other players have met challenges, scholarship or not.
"It was worth it, definitely."
Considered the strongest Wahine spiritually and physically (vertical jump of 36 inches, squat lift of 275 pounds), Woolford stayed home for her family and her future.
"I felt it would be easier transitioning into (UH) med school from the University of Hawaii system," she said. "Of course the goal is to play, fill that libero position, but the plan is medicine, working with women and children.
"I'm so blessed to be part of the program. It may not seem like it to people looking in, but I know my role extends further than the court. I'm blessed to be given the opportunity to work in so many lives."
Woolford is a self-described oxymoron -- soft but strong, proud but humble.
"Maybe it's a local thing, being passive-aggressive," she said. "The team is very local this year, and local girls are not ashamed of who we are, where we come from, what we represent. We just think we are so funny ... but the thing is, we are."
"Raeceen is such a fighter," senior Kari Gregory said. "I look up to her in a lot of ways. She's just the sweetest girl."
"She brings so much to this team," junior Tara Hittle said. "She's mature, strong and a leader. She carries herself so well, stands up for what she believes in."
It has all served a purpose.
"Because of this, Caroline and I will be better people in the end," Woolford said. "No, nothing in life may be harder than this but if it does come, I'll be ready for it."
If Woolford is Hawaii's moral compass, then Blood is a solid GPS system, finding her way from the softball mound to the volleyball court in a roundabout way. Originally recruited to pitch for the Rainbow Wahine, "I came to every volleyball match as a freshman," said Blood, who played both sports at Wilson High in Long Beach, Calif. "It totally changed my frame of mind. I watched from the stands and realized that's where I wanted to be.
"Even though I didn't get much time to be on the court to shine, I can shine in the shadows of my teammates, being a role model to younger kids. All of that is what you get from being a Wahine."
Blood has been more than a 6-foot practice player.
"There were times when I thought she was my toughest competition for a starting spot," Gregory said.
It hasn't happened. Blood has played sparingly in four matches this year, 17 in her career, but is always efficient. She has yet to have a hitting error in 13 attempts, putting down nine kills with no errors.
She was 7-for-7 until late last season when what appeared to be a block went down as a hitting attempt in the WAC tournament statistics.
"In my mind, I was hitting 1.000," she said. "I didn't care what the stats said. It was fun because every time I went in, I got a kill.
"It seemed everyone else thought it was a big joke but it wasn't funny. I thought it showed something."
The perfection ended this year in the sixth match, when she went 0-for-1 against UCLA.
Regardless of the lack of playing time, Blood also decided to stay. When she said she is a "fighter by Blood," it's more than a play on her last name.
"My mom was diagnosed with malignant melanoma 11 years ago," Blood said of her mom, Lauren. "She was given three months to live ... and she's still here.
"We never gave up on her. I'm not going to give up on myself."
Among Blood's fans this week are her parents and her boyfriend, Frankie Duran. She had a chance to see him last week in Las Cruces, N.M. He pitches for New Mexico State.
"He's taught me to pitch overhand and I've taught him to pitch underhand," she said. "Who's the better batter? We haven't gone to the batting cages yet."
Blood said she'll miss volleyball and the freedom of being a college student. But she has a one-way ticket to go back to the mainland next month, ready for the next pitch life will throw.
Wahine hold tight in poll
Three victories and a conference title had no effect on the Hawaii volleyball team's ranking in yesterday's coaches poll.
The Rainbow Wahine (24-5) remained at No. 11 in the CSTV/AVCA Top 25 yesterday.
The top four teams also stayed the same, with the top three splitting the votes for No. 1. Penn State received 35 first-place votes, followed by No. 2 Nebraska (19 votes) and No. 3 Texas (six votes) and Stanford.
USC jumped three spots to No. 5 following its win over previous No. 5 Washington.
New Mexico State, which lost to Hawaii in the Western Athletic Conference final Saturday, dropped a spot to No. 14.
-- Star-Bulletin staff