Senior Lauren Duggins and the 32-1 Rainbow Wahine face Idaho in the first round tomorrow.

Wahine gear up
for ‘real season’

Hawaii opens play in the
NCAA Tournament tomorrow
against 19-10 Idaho

He doesn't mind working on his birthday. Not if it means he'll be busy for the two weeks afterward.

NCAA Tournament

Where: Stan Sheriff Center.
Tomorrow: Brigham Young (23-8) vs. New Mexico State (30-4), 5 p.m.; No. 2 Hawaii (32-1) vs. Idaho (19-10), 7 p.m.
Friday: Tomorrow's winners, 7 p.m.
Radio: Live, KKEA 1420-AM
TV: Under negotiation.
Tickets: Two-day package $16 (upper level), $22 (lower level). Individual match tickets, if available, $9-12, on sale tomorrow.

Dave Shoji celebrates his 57th birthday tomorrow, making a wish for his first national championship title since 1987. It's been a long drought for the Hawaii coach and the Rainbow Wahine program.

There were three NCAA banners in six years between 1982-87. Add the AIAW championship in 1979 and it becomes four in nine, with no team finishing lower than fifth until 1984, the program's 11th season.

There's been plenty of wins since then, with Shoji becoming the fourth coach to reach 800 career victories last season. There's been plenty of good Wahine teams since then, but the closest Hawaii has come to raising another banner was in 1996, when it lost to Stanford in the NCAA final.

What many consider the "real" season begins tomorrow for the Wahine with their first-round match against Idaho (19-10). This is what they have worked for since opening practice on Aug. 19, with the hard work resulting in a 32-1 record and a 31-match winning streak.

"I think our players are excited to be out there finally," Shoji said yesterday. "We've been looking forward to the playoffs and I don't think it will be tough to focus this week at all."

One loss and it's over. Hawaii has lost only two first-round matches in the previous 29 postseason appearances, at Oregon in 1984 and to Loyola Marymount in 1997 at Long Beach, Calif.

Last season, the theme was "Take Kim Home," alluding to the final four being in New Orleans, not far from Wahine All-American Kim Willoughby's home of Napoleonville, La.

This year, it's been "Big D for Lily" with the final four being held in Dallas. Senior All-American Lily Kahumoku has claimed Lubbock, Texas, as her hometown and there has been references to the Wahine doing the Texas two-step during the NCAA's Big Dance.

Typically, Shoji is doing more of a tap dance. His team IS favored ... IS seeded No. 2 ... IS at home. But, as any coach, on any given day ...

"This is not the toughest regional and it's not the weakest," he said after Sunday's bracket announcement. "Idaho is certainly the best first-round opponent that any seeded team is playing. They're certainly not the 63rd-best team in the field.

"BYU (23-8) has turned things around since we played them last season and New Mexico State (30-4) is obviously having a great year."

So is Hawaii, with its 15th 30-plus win season and a senior class not used to losing. Willoughby is 126-11 in the past four years; Kahumoku, who took 2001 off, is 129-6 in her four years.

The pressure is on the seven seniors. This is their last shot at a championship.

The perfect scenario? Meet top-ranked Southern California in the NCAA final on Dec. 20 and avenge the only loss of the season.

The first step in that Texas two-step begins tomorrow.

With the final four being held in Dallas, the Rainbow Wahine hope to give senior Lily Kahumoku, who claims Lubbock, Texas, as her hometown, a homecoming.

A look at the four teams:

No. 2 Hawaii (32-1)

The Wahine are making their 22nd appearance in the NCAA Tournament, having missed the postseason only once (1992). Hawaii is 50-18 overall in the tournament, 15-2 in first-round matches (with four first-round byes) and 15-4 in second-round matches.

The Wahine's only loss came to top-ranked Southern California in the second match of the season on Aug. 23. Since then, Hawaii has won 31 in a row -- 26 in straight games -- and went 16-0 in Western Athletic Conference play, including the WAC tournament.

UH was pushed to five against UCLA, Stanford and Arizona, all of which are in the NCAA Tournament. The Wahine won in four against Pacific, Nevada and Weber State.

Hawaii features a lineup that placed six starters on the All-WAC first team and one (libero Melissa Villaroman) on the second team. Leading the Wahine is Willoughby (6.49 kpg), the school career kill and ace leader, who needs just seven digs to become the all-time dig leader.

Second in kills is Kahumoku (4.48 kpg), the WAC tournament MVP. Setter Kanoe Kamana'o, the WAC Freshman of the Year, is 16th nationally in assists (13.24 apg).

The Wahine are 1-0 against Idaho, defeating the Vandals in the second round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament. Hawaii is 14-5 against former WAC rival Brigham Young, beating the Cougars last season in Provo 3-0, and is 16-0 against former Big West rival New Mexico State, last meeting the Aggies in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1995.

Idaho (19-10)

The Vandals finished fifth in the Big West (10-8) but won their last six, including victories over No. 20 UC Santa Barbara and Pacific, and 12 of their last 14.

This is Idaho's first tournament appearance since 1995 and fourth overall. The Vandals are 2-3 in tournament play and have never advanced past the second round.

Idaho is 0-1 against Hawaii, losing to the Wahine in the second round of the tournament in 1994 at the Stan Sheriff Center.

The Vandals are led by All-Big West selections, 6-foot-2 senior middle Anna-Marie Hammond (4.63 kpg, .322) and 6-1 junior middle Sarah Meek, the conference's block leader (1.46 bpg).

"From their stats, they have some size and their middle attack is strong," said Shoji. "Their blocking numbers are really good. We're happy to be playing this one at home."

Idaho arrived yesterday, bringing along some confidence despite being seeded 16th and last in this regional.

"I think when you look at Hawaii they're a beatable team," Vandals coach Debbie Buchanan told the Argonaut, the campus paper. "They are good. They are second in the nation. But they are beatable. Their strength is their outside while our strength is more our middle.

"I think the key will be blocking balls and hitting high-percentage shots. If we can do those things, we're going to be in good shape."

Brigham Young (23-8)

The Cougars, third in the Mountain West, are making their 21st tournament appearance. They won their last two matches -- against Utah State in five and Eastern Michigan in three -- and seven of their last nine.

BYU is 26-20 in the tournament, including a 3-0 loss at Hawaii in the 1996 regional. The Cougars' best finish was in 1993 when they placed third.

BYU is led by All-Mountain West senior hitter Carrie Bowers (2.75 kpg) and sophomore setter Lauren Richards (11.38 apg). Lindsy Hartsock, a 6-4 middle, was named MWC Freshman of the Year (1.59 kpg, 1.21 bpg) and senior libero Uila Crabbe, a Kamehameha Schools teammate of UH's Kahanamoku and Nohea Tano, set the school's single-season dig record this year (409).

"We know their personnel, having played them last year," Shoji said of his team's 3-0 victory in Provo. "They were pretty average last year but obviously are doing something right this year. They always have good size and good athletes. I'm sure they'll be pretty good."

In her second year coaching the Cougars is Karen Lamb. BYU leads the series against New Mexico State 27-5, and won the last meeting in 1997.

"Obviously, New Mexico State has been very successful this year and will be a hungry team," Lamb said during Sunday's press conference. "I know we're coming together as a team, though, and we've been playing better volleyball as the season has progressed."

BYU was scheduled to play at Hawaii in 2001 but the trip was canceled after the events of 9/11.

"It's kind of fitting for us to be able to go down there," said Lamb. "I'm happy for Uila (Crabbe), and I'm happy that she will have the opportunity to play in front of her family and friends."

New Mexico State (30-4)

The Aggies won their first Sun Belt championship, going 15-0, to advance to the tournament for the first time. They have the won their last 24 matches, last losing on Sept. 19 to Fresno State in four.

NMSU is led by junior hitter Stevi Adams (3.73 kpg) and middle Trinia Cuseo (3.62 kpg, .379), the team leader in kills, kills per game, blocks, and blocks per game. Senior libero Jackie Godber was the conference player of the year (4.47 dpg).

"BYU has a great team and they are a team that I think we can match up well with," said Mike Jordan, named the conference coach of the year. "We could leave the court on Thursday with a first-round win. I think our players know we are capable of beating a team like BYU and we should be hungry and ready to go.

"If we beat BYU, we could play Hawaii, on their court, in front of 10,000 people. There are worse places one could be."

New Mexico State, once coached by Shoji's brother Tom, has not been to Honolulu since 1994. The Aggies will be making more trips beginning in 2005 when they join the WAC.

"We really don't know anything about them," said Dave Shoji. "Obviously, they've gotten better over the years and they've had a great year, too."


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