Thursday, November 4, 1999
UH has been
Hawaii has everything sheBy Cindy Luis
wanted: great volleyball,
coaching, fans and the beach
There's Yahoo, Alta Visa, MSN, Excite... all sorts of search engines when it comes to navigating the internet. Among the less-known is Tanja.com, the search method that Tanja Nikolic used to find her way to Hawaii.
Key words? Volleyball, Top 20 Program, Ocean.
Search results? Hawaii, Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara.
But add key words such as Fans, Team Chemistry and Good Coaches, and there was just one choice.
It took just one call to get the 6-foot middle blocker to change her itinerary from a planned return to her native Croatia. Nikolic had decided to leave Oregon, where she had averaged 2.12 kills a game and hit. .316 in Pac-10 play for the Ducks as a freshman.
"I was 95 percent sure I was going home,'' said Nikolic, who was raised in Kastel Luksic, a village on the Adriatic seacoast. "I didn't like Oregon, the weather, and the coach who recruited me (Revis Ward-Daggett, now at UTEP) was leaving.
"But if I went back home, I couldn't play volleyball and go to university at the same time, which is something I could do in the United States. I thought maybe there is a better place in the U.S. where I could graduate and play for a Top 20 team. But it had to be by the ocean.''
That helped narrow the choices for the 21-year-old Nikolic. It helped, too, that her roommate at Oregon was Tufu Fiaseu, a Radford High graduate who had transferred in from Western Arizona.
Fiaseu told her stories of the "crazy Wahine fans,'' said Nikolic. "I started talking to people and I found out even more about the team, the fans, that Dave (Shoji) was a great coach. And I had always wanted to visit Hawaii.
"I had nothing to lose so I called Dave.''
Her timing was perfect. Shoji was looking for a backup middle blocker for sophomore Veronica Lima, who had been bothered by back spasms last season. When sophomore Adrianne Bradley surprisingly transferred to Utah right before fall practice began, Nikolic found herself more in the coach's game plan.
"Her call to us came totally out of the blue,'' said Shoji. "Once we saw the tapes, we knew she was a solid player but we weren't sure how much she'd be able to contribute. When Adrianne left, it opened up that position.
"She's very valuable to us in practice. But I think she's one of those players who needs to be out there on the court more before she'll be really appreciated. I don't think we've really seen what she can do.''
Those who saw last Friday's match at San Jose State caught a glimpse. Nikolic started in place of the flu-weakened Lima and responded with 13 block assists and 17 digs while hitting .400 with seven kills.
It was the first time Nikolic had played an entire match for the Wahine. Next season, Shoji hopes to move her to right-side hitter, a position that will open up with the graduation of Heidi Ilustre and Jennifer Roberts.
"Tanja's small for a middle blocker in a Top-4 program,'' said Shoji. "But she's showing she can do the job.''
Lima's stomach virus two weeks ago led to Nikolic's first start as a Wahine. It came against Stanford.
"Being in there was very last-second,'' she said. "It was hard because I hadn't played much with the first team and had much to get used to. It was one of the most important matches of the season and, with Veronica sick, it was, 'Wow, what do we do?' ''
Nikolic said the loss to the Cardinal, Hawaii's only defeat of the season, may have been good for the Wahine.
"We don't have many hard games before the regionals,'' she said. "Losing will help us keep pushing harder.
"Our team knows we will be in the final four (at the Stan Sheriff Center Dec. 16-18). We believe we will be here. I know the fans are concerned about the loss but they have to believe in us and help us to our goal.''
Although she is struggling a bit with her pre-med studies, Nikolic's volleyball experience is even better than expected.
"The fans, the tons of leis ... and I have never signed so many autographs,'' she said. "Whenever we go out as a team, everybody knows us, wants to take pictures. I don't play that much but they know me.
"It is hard for my family to believe how great it is, how unique. I told them it was sold out against Stanford. This has to be the most popular gym for my sport in the world.''
Tanja.com doesn't actually exist, but if it did and Nikolic typed in the key word "Happiness'' there would be just one result. "Hawaii.''