Hawaii freshman Kanoe Kamana'o tried to tip the ball over the net and past Florida's Aury Cruz on Thursday.

Wahine’s place
in history secure

Despite not bringing home
a national title, this team will be
remembered for being unique

DALLAS >> It was an All-American banquet not quite like any other and one that few will forget. From Hawaii's Lily Kahumoku chanting a heart-felt oli to teammate Kim Willoughby's genuine surprise at being named the NCAA Division I Player of the Year.

It's the way that Dave Shoji hopes his 2003 team will be remembered. For it's unique greatness, despite not bringing home a national title.

Some 15 hours after the Rainbow Wahine lost to Florida in the national semifinals, it was hard for the coach to accept the end of the season -- and the departure of seven seniors from what he considered possibly the greatest team in Hawaii volleyball history.

"It's tough, it's really tough," Shoji said after yesterday's American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American banquet. "It's going to be tough for a lot of people. I feel so bad for them. They truly believed they were going to win it this year. And for them to be denied ... it's hard. This is probably the best team, at least physically, that we've ever had.

"But I think the fans won't forget these guys. They may not have a banner, but they certainly have put their stamp on Wahine volleyball. They have etched their own place in our history."

Holding that engraver is Willoughby, who became the third Wahine to be named Player of the Year, joining Teee Williams and Angelica Ljungquist. Willoughby topped Williams statistically in becoming the all-time UH leader in kills (2,598), kills per game (5.82) and attempts (5,327).

The three-time All-American also leaves as the all-time leader in aces (194) and digs (1,440). Willoughby, who holds several NCAA single-season records, ranks No. 6 on the NCAA career kill list.

Kahumoku finishes No. 3 in UH career kills (1,822) and kills per game (4.43), second in kill attempts (4,277) and sixth in digs (1,204).

Leaving as members of the career top 10 in several blocking categories are seniors Lauren Duggins and Maja Gustin. Senior Melissa Villaroman finishes No. 7 in digs (1,059).

Hawaii also loses seniors Nohea Tano, a right-side hitter who came into her own this season, and Karin Lundqvist, who stepped up for the injured Gustin in victories over Idaho, Brigham Young, Illinois and Georgia Tech.

Florida's Aury Cruz blocked Hawaii's Karin Lundqvist during Thursday's match.

Shoji will have to replace about 90 percent of the team's offense and about two-thirds of the blocks, digs and aces the seven seniors accounted for in finishing 36-2. But Hawaii does return its starting setter in national Freshman of the Year Kanoe Kamana'o, talented reserve freshman setter Cayley Thurlby, sophomore defensive specialist Ashley Watanabe, sophomore hitter Susie Boogaard, freshman hitter Alicia Arnott, and middle Melody Eckmier, who will be the team's lone senior letter winner.

The Wahine also have a slew of redshirts, including freshman middles Juliana Sanders and Kari Gregory, liberos Raeceen Woolford and Katie Carlson, and senior hitter Teisa Fotu, a transfer from Hawaii Pacific.

Coming in for next fall are three highly touted freshmen in Tara Hittle, a 6-foot hitter from Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Jessica Keefe, a 6-2 hitter out of Ames (Iowa) High School; and Nickie Thomas, a 6-3 middle blocker from Westwood in Austin, Texas. At least one of the incoming freshmen is expected to slide into a starting spot.

Shoji has one scholarship remaining but likely will save it for the 2005 season.

There is some doubt that the 2004 team will make the same kind of run this one did, winning 35 straight, staying No. 2 the entire regular season and winning another conference title. At this point, no one would predict a return to the final four in Long Beach, Calif., next December.

"I haven't stopped to analyze the rest of the teams in the country," Shoji said, "but a lot of teams lost a lot of good seniors. We're not alone in that fact. There are a lot of good players graduating.

"I expect us to be back (in the final four) in 2-3 years. That's the only attitude we can have. We're used to being here, used to high expectations. I want my returning players to understand that we're not accepting anything less."

The final-four sites are set through 2007, but Hawaii, which hosted in 1989 and 1999, will put in for another when the bidding process is opened. Associate athletic director Marilyn Moniz-Kaho'ohanohano said she'd like to bid for either 2008, 2009 or 2010.

Will Shoji, who just completed his 29th season, be around?

"I don't know," he said. "Winning another title is not my only goal. It's not what is driving me. I'd like to win, but I don't think it's about me winning. It's about our team realizing their potential.

"No, I didn't think in 1987 that another title would take this long. But there are so many great players, so many good programs and good players, that it's really hard to win now."

After today's championship match, Shoji and his family will spend the next few days with his wife's family in North Dakota. They will return Christmas Day, in time for assistant coach Kari Anderson's wedding Sunday to former UH basketball player Eric Ambrozich.

"We'll take a little break then get back to training in January," Shoji said. "And I'll replay (Thursday's) match in my mind. I've already done it a thousand times. I don't need to watch the video. I can see almost every play.

"What you think about is, you know, it was a winnable game. A very winnable game. But little things happened, mental things. We had too many unforced errors and we didn't take care of the ball."

No. 1 vs. No. 3: Southern California (34-0) looks to become the fifth team to repeat as NCAA champions today when the Women of Troy take on third-seeded Florida (37-1). USC is trying to become the third NCAA team to finish the season unbeaten and the first since Nebraska in 2000.

If USC wins, it would be the 16th time a school from California has won the championship and the 11th title for the Pac-10. Florida would become the first champion from the Southeastern Conference.

"I can't pick a winner," Shoji said. "I think Florida will be in the match if they play well."

Only USC and Florida have had better tournament performances over the past four years than Hawaii. The Wahine reached the final four in 2000, 2002 and this season.

USC reached the semis in 2000, won last year and will finish either first or second today. Florida is in the final four for the second straight year and plays in its first final today.

Surprise, surprise: Shoji said he was not surprised by Willoughby's selection as Player of the Year because "she was clearly the best player in the country."

But the senior hitter was visibly surprised when her name was announced.

"When I had a great year my sophomore year, I thought I might get it," said Willoughby, who led the country in kills in 2001 and set several NCAA hitting records. "But when I didn't get it, I thought that was going to be my only shot. As well as I did the past two years, I thought it would be (USC's) April Ross. They won the national championship last year and are undefeated this year. Either her or (Florida's) Aury Cruz.

"Plus, I'm from Napoleonville, La., and you don't see that every day. Find that on the map."

Sandy Fassell, Willoughby's Assumption High School coach, attended yesterday's luncheon. During her acceptance speech, Willoughby publicly renewed her promise to Fassell to graduate from college. It will be only then that Willoughby's jersey will be retired at her high school.

"This is a great way to top off her career," Fassell said. "I'm not surprised she got it. Just look at her numbers.

"She's come a long way from Napoleonville. It says something for her to come from there to this."

Culture shock: There were a number of moving speeches by the All-Americans, who were also asked to share a funny story about their respective coaches.

Florida's Benavia Jenkins stole the show when she instead asked for audience participation to learn the "Gator Chomp" cheer.

Kahumoku, who followed her, did one better. The Kamehameha Schools graduate did a ho'omai oli, a welcoming chant.

"You heard everyone talk about how great all these individual athletes were," said Kahumoku, who learned the chant Thursday night. "This was a way to welcome everyone in the audience to be part of the spirit we had up there (on stage). And it was a chance to be Hawaiian and share that."

"As her kumu hula, I think she did very well," said Kamana'o, who helped Kahumoku with the chant.

But Kahumoku wasn't finished. Following her presentation, emcee Cecile Reynaud told the audience what Kahumoku had been doing during the speeches.

"She got the cell phone numbers of the coaches from their All-Americans and called to see who had their phones on," Reynaud said.

"I called (USC's) Mick Haley, (Florida's) Mary Wise, (Pacific's) John Dunning and Dave (Shoji)," Kahumoku said. "Mick answered his. So did Dave. All he said was, 'What do you want now?' "


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