IT is 60 miles from Kamuela to Hilo, an 80-minute drive on good days. In the 22 years of the near-daily commute along the Big Island's Hamakua Coast, Sharon Peterson has had a lot of good days, as well as plenty of time to mentally write her own version of "War and Peace.''
The Hawaii-Hilo women's volleyball coach has done a lot of thinking lately. For the second consecutive year, and third time in four seasons, she and the Vulcans did not advance to the playoffs.
That has not been easy for Peterson, a fiery competitor and coach. Hawaii-Hilo was the premier small-college volleyball program in the late 1970s through mid-1980s, winning seven national championships.
Twenty years ago, the Vulcans won the islands' first national volleyball title, defeating Florida International, 15-9, 15-0, in Orlando, Fla. One time zone and a few hours later, the Hawaii Wahine earned their crown.
"The key to our team was that the players such as Lyndell Lindsey and Cheryl Ching had a lot of maturity,'' said Peterson. "We had a lot of girls who had played a lot of volleyball. My guess is they probably started when they were 3-years-old. So they weren't intimidated when they got on the court.''
In their inaugural season of 1978, the Vulcans finished second at the Division II nationals. A year later, they won it all.
"I was surprised how quickly it came together,'' said Peterson. "That first year, we were just hoping to get invited as an at-large team and then we were seeded No. 1.
"What made 1979 special was we had a real breakdown in mid-season, to the point where I was in tears, thinking the team had fallen apart.''
The Vulcans reglued themselves on the mainland, defeating San Jose State. After beating a Division I team, Hilo "got higher and higher every game,'' said Peterson. "I kept thinking that it couldn't last but it never did subside. We won that last game 15-0.
"As great as the championship was, so was the process of getting there. That team could have totally split but something magical happened.''
THAT magic continued for another five years where the Vulcans finished second in 1980 then won five titles in four years. Hawaii-Hilo held dual membership in the AIAW and NCAA and doubled up on banners in 1981.
The Vulcans hung their last banner in 1988, going 26-1. They also finished second in 1993, the year before moving to NCAA Division II status.
"Things have changed because we've had to recruit more from the mainland,'' said Peterson. "A lot of Hawaii girls want to go away to school and we don't have the reservoir of talent staying home like we used to. It was a nice little secret for a while.''
There's also been the intense competition with the other island schools to just advance to postseason play. Only twice since 1988 has a team outside of Hawaii claimed the national title; BYU-Hawaii won in 1991 and '92 and from 1994-97; HPU won in 1990 and 1998.
The two-time Olympian (1964 and '68) said it's hard to believe 20 years have gone by since her first title team. Although she has considered retiring a few times, "I'm not ready to give it up. I'm going to hang in there for a few more years,'' she said. "Our new chancellor (Rose Tsang) has been very supportive of what we need to do with the program, which includes better recruiting.''
Peterson, who turns 57 this Saturday, went snorkeling over the weekend as a way to refresh her mind spirit. Here's to the rejuvenation of her Vulcan volleyball program as well.
Cindy Luis is a Star-Bulletin sportswriter.
Her column appears weekly.