Lily Kahumoku and the Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji joked about her feature story in the Hawaiian Airlines magazine before yesterday's first practice.

Wahine volleyball
team aiming for
banner season

UH opens practice looking
for its first national title since '87

It's all about the journey.

The destination is Dallas.

The goal is the NCAA championship, the first since 1987.

The end, in this case, will justify the means.

And the Hawaii women's volleyball team means business. The Wahine took their collective first step yesterday as practice officially started at the Stan Sheriff Center, the first of their 12-Step, Two-A-Day Program designed to get them ready for the Aug. 22 season opener against Kansas State.

Coach Dave Shoji said he has been ready for his 29th season almost since the last ball went down in the Dec. 19 loss to Stanford in the national semifinals in New Orleans. He wasn't completely ready yesterday to greet 23 players, the most ever to turn out to wear a Wahine uniform.

There were 14 on the active roster last season when the team went 34-2. Shoji anticipates having 18 in uniform this year.

"It's flattering to know that a lot of people want to be on this team," he said. "This is the most that we've ever had probably by eight to 10.

"I think all of them expect to make the team, so some hard decisions will have to made. Obviously you can't have a squad of 23. They're all excellent players, there's not a weak player out there. It's going to be difficult to get down to a workable number."

The Wahine volleyball team went through its warm-up routine during yesterday's first day of practice. Twenty-three players are vying for 18 roster spots.

Making the team might be the easy part. The hard part will be getting playing time.

With the exception of setter, Hawaii has its starting lineup intact. It's senior-laden and talent-heavy with three All-Americans (first-team hitters Lily Kahumoku and Kim Willoughby and third-team middle Lauren Duggins), one all-conference (middle Maja Gustin) and "probably the best libero in the country who doesn't get recognized," said Willoughby, referring to Melissa Villaroman.

The 5-foot-6 Villaroman is Willoughby's motivation this season, the biggest reason -- or smallest, given Villaroman's size -- that Willoughby wants to hang a banner in the Sheriff Center.

"I don't care if I get remembered for anything else," said the two-time All-American and Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year. "This season is about Melissa. It's about (senior hitter) Nohea Tano and (sophomore libero) Ashley Watanabe, who pushes Melissa every day in practice.

"If our team wins the national championship, they'll be remembered for that. I listen to other people talk and they remember everybody who won the national championship. They remember the other people who did great things, the All-Americans, but they can't remember what years Robyn Ah Mow played or Heather Bown played. But when you talk about 1987, there's so much more fire behind everyone's name. It's not one person. It's the team, the entire team, they remember.

"For me, this year is not about breaking (individual) records. It's about the team."

Kahumoku says the Wahine's time has come.

"Knowing that it's the last chance for some of us to put up a banner, the urgency has increased tremendously," said Kahumoku. "Every year, there's been pressure to win and especially this year.

"But pressure is a privilege. This year, we are very aware of the obstacles that prevented us from winning it in the past. We understand that complacency has been a problem and our goal is to challenge ourselves. We know we can sleepwalk through some of our games and still win. The goal is to stay challenged."

Gustin has been challenged by the drought of 15 seasons without another title. She has often looked up at the banners in the Sheriff Center, the ones marking the Wahine's titles of 1979, '82, '83 and '87, and the men's title in 2002.

"We have hopes and dreams this year, to be No. 1 in the United States," said Gustin, a Slovenian national. "That's our hope. That's our dream. That's our goal and that's our intention.

"Our intention is to be the champion. We just have to find the strategy to get there. It's our time. I wouldn't say there's pressure. It's about taking charge, being more responsible. This year, we need to go beyond our limits."

Wahine seniors Lauren Duggins, left, and Kim Willoughby, right, dug balls during a drill at the Stan Sheriff Center yesterday morning.

If yesterday was any indication, the team appeared ready to go where no Wahine team has gone in 16 years ... at center court to accept the championship trophy.

"We're miles ahead of last year already, athletically and physically," said Shoji. "We're paid to be coaches and we'll coach anybody, but it's a lot more fun when you have a group like this.

"Today was excellent. We did some teaching, but it was more about (repetitions). Our practices are not designed to be about conditioning. They're in great shape. What we're trying to do is take care of reps and technique early, and put the team on the floor as soon as we can."

Shoji is anxious to get started on his 29th season. He knows that this team is capable of winning it all.

That's one goal. The other is to enjoy the ride.

"We've been anticipating this day for a while," he said of yesterday's first day of practice. "We know it's going to be an exciting year. We're putting pressure on ourselves to be excellent, to do better than last year.

"Obviously, we have a chance to win. That's what we want to do, that's the expectation. We also want all the seniors to relish this season because it's their last. And we want the fans to come out and see this group. They're very special. It might be a long time before we see another Kim or Lily."

After two three-hour sessions yesterday, which included a birthday cake for 18-year-old freshman setter Kanoe Kamana'o, Shoji was ready to call it a day. A very good day.

There are 11 more just like that ahead, beginning this morning. There will be only one day off between now and Aug. 22.

The journey has begun.

Wahine volleyball schedule

State Farm NACWAA Women's Volleyball Classic
Aug. 22: Florida vs. USC, 5 p.m.; Kansas State vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.
Aug. 23: Consolation, 5 p.m.; championship, 7 p.m.

16th Hawaiian Airlines Classic
Aug. 29: Louisville vs. UCLA, 5 p.m.; Minnesota vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.
Aug. 30: Minnesota vs. Louisville, 1 p.m.
Aug. 31: Minnesota vs. UCLA, 3 p.m.; Louisville vs. Hawaii, 5 p.m.
Sept. 1: UCLA vs. Hawaii, 4 p.m.

9th Aston Imua Challenge
Sept. 4: Pacific vs. Baylor, 5 p.m.; Wichita State vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.
Sept. 5: Pacific vs. Wichita State, 5 p.m.; Baylor vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.
Sept. 6: Wichita State vs. Baylor, 5 p.m.; Pacific vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.

Hawaii Invitational
Sept. 12: Stanford vs. Weber State, 5 p.m.; Utah State vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.
Sept. 13: Consolation, 5 p.m.; championship, 7 p.m.
Sept. 18: Loyola Marymount vs. UNLV, 7 p.m.
Sept. 19: Loyola Marymount vs. Hawaii
Sept. 20: UNLV vs. Hawaii
Sept. 26: x-at San Jose State
Sept. 28: at Santa Clara
Oct. 2: x-Fresno State
Oct 4: Alumnae vs. Alumnae, 5 p.m.; x-Nevada, 7 p.m.
Oct. 9: x-at Boise State
Oct. 11: x-at UTEP
Oct. 16: x-Louisiana Tech
Oct. 18: x-SMU
Oct. 19: Arizona, 5 p.m.
Oct. 23: x-at Rice
Oct. 24: at LSU
Oct. 25: x-at Tulsa
Oct. 30: x-Boise State
Nov. 6: x-at Nevada
Nov. 8: x-at Fresno State
Nov. 15: x-San Jose State

WAC Tournament
Nov. 21-23: At Reno, Nev.
UNLV Tournament
Nov. 27-28: At Las Vegas

NCAA Tournament
Dec. 4-7: 1st and 2nd rounds, TBA
Dec. 12-13: NCAA Regionals, TBA
Dec. 18 & 20: NCAA Championship, Dallas

x-denotes Western Athletic Conference match
All home games 7 p.m. Stan Sheriff Center unless noted otherwise


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