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Kansas City on Wahine's minds


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POSTED: Saturday, December 19, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. » The collective mood of the Hawaii volleyball team resembled the weather outside its hotel yesterday.

Cloudy, a little rain, rays of sunshine breaking through.

There was sadness that one of the program's best seasons ended.

There were some tears that five seniors would not be in the weight room next month when preparations for spring ball begin.

And there was plenty of confidence that, with five starters returning from a 32-3 team, the Rainbow Wahine would be in Kansas City, site of the 2010 final four, this time next year.

Certainly there was no shame in losing to top-ranked Penn State (37-0) in Thursday's national semifinal. No one since Stanford in early 2007 has been able to defeat the Nittany Lions, with Hawaii becoming victim No. 101 in PSU's NCAA-record winning streak.

The Wahine took a set off the two-time defending national champion, something that only four other teams had done this season. But in the end of the match at the St. Pete Times Forum, Hawaii got out-Hawaii'ed by a team that played relentless defense to go along with a suffocating block.

“;There are no regrets, although it's never good to end the season with a loss,”; junior setter Dani Mafua said. “;The spirits are high. We're proud of ourselves and what we've accomplished. A lot of people doubted us, but to have been one of the last four teams standing is something that feels really good.

“;I've got one more season left and Kanani (Danielson) two. We were talking this morning and we agreed. We're going to bring it (the national title) home next year.”;

The hope is that Hawaii won't have to spend all of the postseason on the road next year.

UH associate athletic director Marilyn Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano said yesterday that the school would be bidding for the next two regionals. Hawaii has not hosted a regional since 2006, and this year's bid to host a subregional for the first time since 2003—a bid that guaranteed the NCAA at least $100,000 profit—was rejected.

“;I think the only way we're going to be home (in the postseason) is to host a regional,”; said Dave Shoji, the newly named national coach of the year. “;Whether we can get back to the final four next year is going to depend on how we regroup.

“;We won't be the same team, won't have the leadership of Aneli (senior hitter Cubi-Otineru) and the offense from Amber (senior middle Kaufman). We have a lot coming back and players coming in we think might be able to contribute right away. I think we showed we belong in the upper echelon of the sport and are respected.”;

Although the Wahine said they weren't intimidated by getting to their first final four since 2003, none of them had experienced the hype and hoopla surrounding what has become a huge event. The team bus had a police escort to the arena, and the prematch spotlight introductions were on par with that of an NBA game.

“;The police escort was like we were a professional team ,”; sophomore hitter Stephanie Ferrell said. “;It was above and beyond the attention we get in Hawaii, and we get a lot of attention in Hawaii.

“;I think that, and the spotlight introduction, was when we really realized that we were really there, in the final four.”;

The experience that Penn State has had on the national stage—winning the past two titles, the four first-team All-Americans, the national player of the year in senior hitter Megan Hodge—all added to the Nittany Lions' advantage. There was also the decided height advantage that the Wahine—acknowledging they were undersized all season—just couldn't overcome.

Where Hawaii's tallest front-row lineup averaged a generous 6-foot-1—an average helped by 6-4 freshman middle Brittany Hewitt—all of Penn State's starters were listed as at least 6-feet, topping out at 6-5 right-side hitter Blair Brown.

“;They were pretty huge, which is never an excuse,”; said Mafua, her team outblocked 15-0. “;It felt like they were playing at half speed where we were playing at double speed to make up for our size.

“;They were really tough, but we made them earn it. It's something we wanted to do and it's something we didn't do with Stanford (last year's regional final).

“;I don't think they expected we could take that first set off them. We came out fighting and, when you look at the final stats, we're pretty even except for the blocks. It was our mistakes that added up, that made the difference.”;

Sophomore middle Lex Forsythe was one of the four Wahine on the 14-player roster who didn't get into the match. Watching only fueled her desire to have the team back in the final four next season.

“;I remember when Dave (Shoji) first called me, I told him we were going to win an NCAA title,”; she said. “;Then—bam!—my first season, we're in the final four. I can't believe I said that to him, but now I believe it even more.

“;It's a realistic expectation, especially now that we've seen it and experienced it. We should repeat it. We know what to expect. I just want the season to start right now.”;

“;What I saw from Penn State was their confidence, they knew they were No. 1,”; added sophomore hitter Corinne Cascioppo, who made two brief blocking-sub appearances Thursday. “;The big thing about Penn State is their reputation.

“;Yes, they are 'Penn State.' But we are Hawaii and we'll be back.”;

While Shoji has begun to look ahead to his 36th season, he couldn't quite let go of the last contest of his 35th. He is famous for replaying matches in his mind, and Thursday's semifinal was no different ... although the score didn't change.

“;We probably should have flopped the lineup earlier to give Kanani a chance to hit against (setter Alisha) Glass, who's more her size,”; Shoji said. “;But we won Game 1 and you're not going to change things in Game 2. Going into Game 3, you're still 1-1.

“;We did flop for Game 4, it helped Kanani, but it created problems in the other rotations. It wasn't the determining factor.”;

The difference, according to Shoji, was how Penn State's role players came up big, such as Darcy Dorton (eight kills) and Fatima Balza (nine block assists). The Wahine did a good job on Hodge and Arielle Wilson, holding them under their averages for kills and hitting percentage.

Glass also was more offensive, with nine kills and no errors on 13 attempts “;and we were prepared to defend her,”; Shoji said. “;Penn State made the plays when we didn't. They have a lot of weapons and we couldn't transition for points.

“;We missed too many serves (nine) to win the match. Against a team like that, you can't do that or let them get two, three, four points at a time. Something we hadn't been doing. Once you get behind like that, you're not coming back.”;