GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Right-side hitter Tara Hittle, left, returns for the Rainbow Wahine next season, but middle Juliana Sanders is one of four seniors who won't be back. Hittle will also play basketball this winter.
Reality sets in for Wahine
The focus turns to next year after the Wahine's early NCAA tournament exit
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. » The Warrior football team was able to do what the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team couldn't ... complete a successful comeback.
The Wahine watched the football game here, five time zones away, the exciting finish coming around 3:15 a.m. yesterday. A few hours later, the team was headed to the airport and back to Honolulu instead of preparing for Friday's regional semifinal against BYU at Penn State.
No. 9 Hawaii (27-6) saw its season come to a disappointing end Saturday night with the unexpected 30-22, 30-18, 15-30, 33-31 loss to Middle Tennessee State, preventing the Wahine from making their 10th consecutive regional appearance. For the returning players it was a hard lesson, but one to use as motivation for next fall.
"It's weird to think about the end of the season and the beginning of the next season on the same day," junior hitter Jessica Keefe said. "But we'll remember what this feels like and realize how much work has to be done during the off-season.
"As much as we are a team, this time until next fall is the time to better yourself individually, make yourself a better athlete so that when fall comes, we bring it together as a cohesive, strong team."
Hawaii loses four seniors off a team that won its 10th straight Western Athletic Conference championship. The Wahine return 14 players and will add at least two new players in incoming freshmen Kanani Herring and Brittany Hewitt.
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The new year does not start next month. For the Hawaii volleyball team, 2008 started moments after the Rainbow Wahine watched Middle Tennessee State celebrating its second-round victory at the Kentucky International Convention Center.
Of Hawaii's 14-member travel roster, only freshman hitter Stephanie Ferrell didn't see the court. She knew that would be the case before making the trip, but it didn't prevent her from sharing the team's frustration when the season ended Saturday in shocking fashion.
"It was really hard to watch and not be able to help," said Ferrell, rehabbing a ankle injury the past two months. "I'm a really big competitor and it's been really hard to even watch practice and not be able to play.
"Being able to make the trip was a good learning experience. I'm really looking forward to next season. I think I can make a difference on offense and defense."
Ferrell and freshman middle Amanda Simmons are part of the young future for the Wahine. Joining them in fall will be incoming freshmen Kanani Herring, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter who led Kamehameha to three state championships and is expected to have an immediate impact, and Brittany Hewitt, a 6-4 middle who led Eagle (Idaho) High to two state titles.
"We have really good recruits coming in," freshman libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue said. "I played club with Kanani and she is an awesome player."
Hawaii does lose four seniors, all of whom contributed on and off the court. The postseason is expected to continue for middle Juliana Sanders this week when the all-region team is announced.
Also gone is middle Kari Gregory, the acknowledged "team mom" who accepted her reserve role after an All-WAC junior season and made the most of her court time. Defensive specialist Raeceen Woolford and middle Caroline Blood did not see much playing time, but will still leave a void.
Jamie Houston heads the list of returnees. On Saturday she became the fourth Wahine to reach the 1,600-kill mark and will start next year with 1,611.
Five other starters return in right-side hitter Tara Hittle, left-side hitter Aneli Cubi-Otineru, middle Amber Kaufman, setter Stephanie Brandt and Ka'aihue. Also back will be reserve setter Dani Mafua, outside hitter Jessica Keefe and defensive specialists Jayme Lee, Elise Duggins and Rayna Kitaguchi.
The biggest hope is that middle Nickie Thomas will finally be healthy for an entire season. She has been penciled in to start the past two years, but suffered season-ending knee injuries twice.
For Hittle, there's little time to dwell on the end of volleyball. She joins the Wahine basketball team upon her return.
Hittle will be on a basketball scholarship which frees up another volleyball scholarship. Wahine coach Dave Shoji said he wasn't sure if he'd use that for next season or save it for the following year.
Saturday meant that the NCAA title drought continues for Hawaii, which won three in six years but none since 1987. It remains a goal for Shoji, who turns 61 today, and who'll take a 952-168-1 record into his 34th season.
"Every loss hurts," he said. "I felt we had a chance of winning (Saturday) and felt we had a good chance of winning next week. But we didn't take care of business.
"It doesn't matter when you lose (in the NCAA tournament). You lose, you're out."
The Wahine did keep alive several key streaks, including leading the country in attendance for a 13th straight season.
Hawaii lost a WAC home match for the first time in 12 seasons of membership when it was swept by Utah State, one of four losses to an unranked team this year. The Wahine had only been beaten by seven unranked teams between 1982 and 2006, with three of those coming during the injury-riddled 1992 season.