"It's bittersweet the way we lost and where we lost in the tournament."

Dave Shoji, UH coach

Rainbow Wahine
left to ponder
the ‘what-ifs’

After a narrow defeat by Wisconsin,
Hawaii can only watch as Stanford
sweeps the Badgers

GREEN BAY, Wis. » Dave Shoji came back to the hotel last night after watching Stanford sweep Wisconsin and earn a trip to next week's final four in Long Beach, Calif.

The "what-ifs" played in his head, just as they had when he tried to sleep after Friday's season-ending loss to Wisconsin here in the NCAA regional semifinal.

» What if junior libero Ashley Watanabe had not been injured prior to the first-round match with Colorado?

» What if junior middle Victoria Prince had been at full strength, instead of weakened by the flu and strep throat?

» What if freshman hitter Tara Hittle had been reminded to bring her contrasting jersey in case she was called upon to be the team's fourth libero?

» What if the Rainbow Wahine had gotten past the Badgers and had a shot at the Cardinal?

"Stanford is beatable," Shoji said. "Could we have won it all? I think we would have been in any match we played. There's no super team out there. Maybe Nebraska, but I haven't seen them play. I thought Penn State might be the other super team, but they lost to a good UCLA team (which Hawaii beat). We could have been in a match with anybody, but that's the way things go.

"The frustration is not being able to move on when you're two points away from winning the match (at 13-11 in Game 5). No question if I had been told at the beginning of the season that we'd be 30-1 I'd take it. We were thinking 6-4 after the first 10 matches. But it's bittersweet the way we lost and where we lost in the tournament. After getting this far ... everyone thought we should have moved on."

Instead it will be Stanford against Washington and Southern California vs. Minnesota in Thursday's semifinals at the Long Beach Arena. It is the first time since 2001 that Hawaii is not in the final four; that season, the Wahine lost to UCLA in the regional semifinal after being sent on the road for the first two rounds, as happened this year.

Shoji didn't want to pin the loss on being on the road for the past four weekends, but he'd gladly trade his players earning premier status on frequent-flyer programs -- the NCAA now allows players to keep their own travel miles -- for a chance at a fifth national title. The last one came in 1987, and Shoji said this year's team reminds him of the last championship squad.

Most of those players came in on the heels of Hawaii winning back-to-back titles in 1982-83. The only championship team still not inducted into the UH Circle of Honor had four years to grow together before finally being able to get past Pacific in the regional and into the final four.

"I looked around after the loss and I saw freshman, sophomore, junior," said sophomore setter Kanoe Kamana'o, who is expected to pick up her second All-America award next week. "We only lose two seniors (Melody Eckmier and Teisa Fotu). We come back with almost everyone and whoever else (new) comes in.

"Next year should be good. But we need to keep working hard."

Prince is already thinking about next season.

"The first thing we do when we get back off the plane from Christmas break is get back in the gym together," the All-America candidate said. "Every day, we go hard and prepare for next year so that when this time comes next year ... I don't think we can do anything more than we did this season. To go 21-19 in the fifth and that's your only loss ... that's giving everything that you have. I think we left everything on the court. Everybody played with their heart."

Hawaii loses Fotu and Eckmier, who were the stabilizing influences on a team that had lost seven seniors and three All-Americans, including player of the year Kim Willoughby. Eckmier finished her injury-ridden five years with just 31 kills and 36 blocks in 39 games this season; Fotu, in her one year, became the utility player who finished strong at the end.

Hawaii returns 96 percent of its offense and 84 percent of its blocking. Shoji has one scholarship remaining after Punahou standout Aneli Cubi-Ontinero officially committed last month.

At this point of last season, Hawaii also had one scholarship to give and were looking for an impact player, either one with international experience or a transfer. Prince showed up unexpectedly.

"You'd like to have one (scholarship) to play with," Shoji said. "We may use it or we may sit on it for the next year. It would be nice to get an impact player.

"We're still looking at some high school players who are unsigned. But our lineup is pretty set for next year. It would take someone who is very, very good to come in and beat out one of the starters."

Three of those starters are up for All-America honors in Kamana'o, Prince and sophomore Alicia Arnott. All are under consideration via making the all-regional team.

Arnott, a regional honorable mention, is considered a long shot, but her statistics are worth consideration. She led the team in kills with 482 and was second in attempts with 1,320.

"Alicia got better as the year went on," Shoji said. "Her numbers compare well with the other outside hitters the (All-America) committee will look at.

"With Victoria (Prince), what has to impress the committee is her hitting percentage. It's over 40 percent."

Prince, the transfer from Washington State, hit just .235 against Wisconsin but finished with a team-leading .411. She is now No. 2 on the school's single-season percentage rankings, behind 1996 player of the year Angelica Ljungquist's .417.

Kamana'o, last year's Freshman of the Year, finishes as the only player this season with 13.63 assists, 3.13 digs and 1.14 blocks a game. It might not be enough for her to be the player of the year.

"The winner usually comes from a final-four team," Shoji said. "It doesn't have to, but it usually does. What I'd tell the committee is to look at our record, what we accomplished, how many starters we had back."

Looking ahead: The Wahine's schedule next year will include Top 25 teams Washington, Penn State, Southern California, UCLA and Loyola Marymount.

Hawaii is scheduled to participate in the Thanksgiving tournament at Pacific, but it depends on whether the Western Athletic Conference will continue its postseason tournament.

Shoji is one of the coaches who would prefer not to have the tournament and said he would bring it up with the other conference coaches during next week's AVCA Convention. WAC Commissioner Karl Benson is committed to hold tournaments for all of the league's NCAA championship sports but could be vetoed by a vote of the WAC Council.

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