A very good year


POSTED: Thursday, December 24, 2009

They played for so many the past five months. Family, friends, an entire state, strangers rooting for an underdog from a non-BCS conference, casual fans who fell in love with the sport because of the way Hawaii played it.

Most of all, the Rainbow Wahine played for each other. It was a true team effort that silenced national critics, that erased the doubts of so many, and that resulted in one of the finest seasons in 36 years of competition.

It's been a week since top-ranked Penn State ended Hawaii's NCAA tournament run in the national semifinals, the Wahine's first final four appearance since 2003. The 32-3 finish was the second consecutive 30-plus win season—18th overall—and it included several impressive milestones:

» The program's 1,000th victory, made even sweeter because it came in a decisive sweep of nemesis Stanford;

» Coach Dave Shoji's 1,000th career victory, making the eventual national coach of the year the second at the Division I level to attain the mark;

» Senior hitter Aneli Cubi-Otineru joining the elite 1,000-kill club, the 16th Wahine to do so and just the second to do it in a three-year career;

» Sophomore hitter Kanani Danielson's impressive performance that resulted in an unprecedented five conference player of the week citations; the outstanding player of four tournaments, including the Western Athletic Conference tourney; awards as the WAC player of the year, all-region and first-team All-America;

» Senior reserve setter Stephanie Brandt earning the inaugural NCAA Elite 88 award for women's volleyball for the highest GPA (3.86) among players competing at the final four.

For a program which had never finished lower than third in its first six years of existence, finishing third this year was nothing to be ashamed of. Hawaii, ranked third most of the season—including this week's final poll—overcame having to play on the road for the last five weeks and an insultingly low seed (12) to emerge out of arguably the toughest regional and advance to its ninth final four and fourth this decade.

The compliment that may have meant the most to the Rainbow Wahine came from Penn State coach Russ Rose, whose 1,000th career victory came at the expense of ending Hawaii's season.

“;They played with that typical Hawaiian spirit that has marked Dave's teams for decades,”; said Rose, whose team won its third straight NCAA title by rallying past No. 2 Texas in five on Saturday.

Indeed, this year's edition reminded many of the great Hawaii teams of the 1970s and '80s, particularly the last national championship team of 1987. Much as senior captain Tita Ahuna led her squad to that title, senior captain Cubi-Otineru had that same refuse-to-lose attitude and calming presence.

All season, opposing coaches praised Hawaii's high volleyball IQ, something that is developed when being raised in the island volleyball culture. There also was a humility that was continually reinforced by the ego-less Danielson, who will be in contention for national player of the year the next two seasons.

Wahine associate coach Kari Anderson Ambrozich has been around the program since 1991, first as a setter (1991-94) and now on staff for the past 13 years.

“;This is probably one of the top teams that I've been around in my time here,”; Ambrozich said. “;Most successful teams tend to have drama, some divas. We didn't have any of that.

“;It was a humble team, a joy to be around and be a part of. When I think of the magical seasons I've been a part of, I hope this group realizes how special this one was.”;

“;This is definitely one of my favorite teams,”; Shoji added. “;Our players were great examples for young people. I hope when our players look back, they'll realize it was a special team and a special season.”;

For the 16th year in a row, Hawaii led the country in attendance, averaging 6,423 in 20 home appearances. A season-high 9,293—the biggest crowd since 9,875 were in the stands on senior night in 2004—showed up on Oct. 17 as the Wahine defeated New Mexico State to give Shoji his 1,000th victory.





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Hawaii returns five starters and the confidence that reaching a final four brings. The incoming recruiting class is highly regarded and should ensure that the Wahine will be very successful the next few seasons.

Five seniors depart, leaving their own unique mark on the program. The hardest things to replace will be the intangibles, such as the energy from defensive specialist Jayme Lee and Brandt each time they stepped on the court.

Senior middle Cat Fowler was the perfect role player who missed the final two weeks with a severe ankle sprain. Amber Kaufman continued the success that Hawaii's undersized but athletic middles have had, and Cubi-Otineru's all-around game will be difficult to replicate.

Hawaii again will have a tough preseason schedule in hopes that it will offset the WAC RPI that brings the Wahine's rating down. Among the teams coming to the Sheriff Center are New Mexico, Brigham Young, USC, UCLA, UC Irvine, Saint Mary's, San Diego and Kansas State.

As the BCS football money continues to trickle down to volleyball programs, Shoji knows it will continue to be harder and harder to compete for the top players and against the top programs. Hawaii was the only non-BCS conference school to make it out of the Sweet 16.

“;We were playing for a lot of people at the end, all of the little guys,”; he said. “;I think we're respected and showed that we belong in the upper echelon of the sport.”;





        ; 5Kanani Danielson 5-10 | So. | OH — First-team All-American ... All-West Region ... WAC Player of Year. ... Most Outstanding Player of the Stanford Regional, WAC tournament, Chevron Invitational, Advertiser Challenge. ... Five-time WAC player of the week. ... Played in 114 sets, starting 34 matches. ... Career-high 32 kills at Utah State. ... Led team in kills (4.23 kps). ... No. 3 in NCAA tournament scoring (92 points) and kills (86).




        ; 2Amber Kaufman 6-0 | Senior | MB — All-West Region. ... Honorable mention All-American. ... First team all-WAC for second straight year, ... Played in 111 sets, starting all 35 matches. ... Ranked third in country in hitting percentage (.431) ... 44 aces, second on team. ... Hit 1.000 against Louisiana Tech (eight kills on eight swings). ... Advertiser Challenge all-tournament team.




        ; 4Brittney Hewitt 6-3 | Fr. | MB — WAC Freshman of Year ... Career-high 10 kills and 11 blocks against No. 25 Santa Clara ... Played in 96 sets, starting 34 matches ... Led team in blocks (128 total) ... No. 3 in blocks (24) in NCAA tournament.




        ; 7Elizabeth Ka'aihue 5-8 | Jr. | L — Second team all-WAC ... Recorded double-digit digs in 20 matches, season-high 25 against New Mexico State ... Career-high four aces in WAC tournament title match against New Mexico State ... Played in 112 sets with 35 starts as libero and backcourt time as a defensive specialist ... Led team in digs (422), tied for second in the NCAA tournament with 80 digs.




        ; 11Dani Mafua 5-10 | Jr. | S — Started all 35 matches, playing in all but two of the 117 sets. ... All-regional. ... Honorable mention All-America. ... First team All-WAC. ... All-tournament selection for Stanford Regional, WAC, Chevron Invitational, Advertiser Challenge. ... Season-high 61 assists at Utah State. ... Six double-doubles ... Career-high 17 digs in loss to No. 1 Penn State ... Second in assists in the NCAA tournament (223).




        ; 13Aneli Cubi-Otineru | 5-11 | Sr. | OH — Captain was 16th Wahine to notch 1,000 kills, second in a three-year career. ... Third team All-American ... All-WAC first team for third year. ... Stanford regional, WAC, Chevron Invitational and HAL Classic all-tournament teams. ... Played 112 sets, started 34 matches. ... Led team in aces (56), second in kills (348) and digs (284). ... Career-high 22 kills at Utah State.




        ; 1Stephanie Ferrell 6-1 | So. | OH — Second-team All-WAC ... Played in 109 of 117 sets with 31 starts. ... Career night in the regional semifinal against No. 8 Illinois (19 kills). ... All-regional team with a combined 29 kills.






        ; 18Jayme Lee 5-2 | Sr. | L — Played in all 35 matches, starting two, mostly as a defensive specialist. ... Season-high nine digs against San Jose State. ... Key serving runs in NCAA second-round win at No. 15 USC. ... Two aces in regional semifinal win over No. 8 Illinois.




        ; 10Stephanie Brandt 5-9 | Sr. | S/DS — Reserve setter used primarily as a serving sub, with 27 aces and 114 digs. ... Played in 112 sets and all 35 matches, starting three. ... Inauguaral winner of the NCAA Elite 88 award for women's volleyball, recognizing the top GPA (3.86) at a championship venue.




        ; 6Corinne Cascioppo 6-3 | So. | OH — Transfer played sparingly in 46 sets, one start in 30 matches. ... Career-high five kills against UT San Antonio and Brigham Young-Hawaii, four block assists at San Jose State.




        ; 9Lex Forsythe 6-4 | So. | MB — Transfer played sparingly in 34 sets, with one start in 22 matches. ... Seven kills at Boise State, six block assists vs. Louisiana Tech.




        ; 12Emily Maeda 5-6 | Fr. | L — Sidelined with leg injury for most of the season with appearances in four sets. ... One dig against both Brigham Young-Hawaii and USC.




        ; 16Cat Fowler 6-2 | Sr. | MB/OH — Used mostly as a blocking sub, playing in 42 sets and 25 matches. ... Season-high three kills twice, both times against Louisiana Tech.




        ; 17Alexis Robins 5-6 | Jr. | L — Transfer played in 19 sets and for 15 matches, with an ace and four digs on the season.