Dave Shoji and the Rainbow Wahine will be well-traveled by the time this season is over.

Tough road

UH opens a difficult schedule against
top opponents in Omaha

DAVE Shoji comes into his 31st season knowing more airport codes by heart than many pilots. Among the many baggage tags the Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach has pulled off are three from last month in LOU, DEN and GIG ... which, respectively, correspond to:

» Louisville, Ky., where his sons were competing in the USA Volleyball Boys Junior Olympics;
» Denver, from where he drove to Colorado Springs to watch son Erik at USAV High Performance Camp;
» Rio De Janeiro, where son Kawika was competing for the USAV Youth National Team in an international tournament.

UH Volleyball schedule

AVCA/NACWAA Volleyball Showcase (Omaha, Neb.)
Aug. 26
Stanford vs. Penn State
Hawaii vs. Nebraska
Aug 27
Hawaii vs. Stanford/Penn State

18th Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Volleyball Classic
Aug. 31
Penn State vs. Southern California 7 p.m.
Sept. 1
Western Michigan vs. Penn State, 4:30 p.m.
Hawaii vs. Southern California, 7 p.m.
Sept. 2
Western Michigan vs. Southern California, 4:30 p.m.
Hawaii vs. Penn State, 7 p.m.
Sept. 4
Hawaii vs. Western Michigan, 5 p.m.

Waikiki Beach Marriott Volleyball Challenge
Sept. 8
Cal State Northridge vs. UCLA, 4:30 p.m.
Hawaii vs. Cincinnati, 7 p.m.
Sept. 9
UCLA vs. Cincinnati, 4:30 p.m.
Hawaii vs. Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.
Sept. 10
Cincinnati vs. Cal State Northridge, 4:30 p.m.
Hawaii vs. UCLA, 7 p.m.
Sept. 16
vs. Washington, 7 p.m.
Sept. 17
vs. Washington, 6 p.m.
Sept. 22
x-vs. Boise State-x, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23
vs. Loyola Marymount, 7 p.m.
Sept. 24
Alumnae vs. Alumnae, 5 p.m.
vs. Loyola Marymount, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29
x-at Louisiana Tech
Oct. 1
x-at New Mexico State
Oct. 7
x-Fresno State
Oct. 8
Oct. 13
x-at Idaho
Oct. 15
x-at Boise State
Oct. 20
x-Utah State
Oct. 22
x-San Jose State
Oct. 27
x-at Nevada
Oct. 29
x-at Fresno State
Nov. 5
Nov. 9
x-at Utah State
Nov. 11
x-at San Jose State
Nov. 17
x-New Mexico State
Nov. 18
x-Louisiana Tech

WAC Tournament (Reno, Nev.)
Nov. 24-26
Matchups TBA

NCAA Tournament
Dec. 1-4
Matchups TBA
First/second rounds, at school sites
Dec. 8-11
NCAA regional sites: Omaha, Neb.; Stanford,; Penn State; Texas A&M
Dec. 15-17
Final four, San Antonio, Texas

In a little more than two weeks, Shoji will be packing his bags for OMA (Omaha, Neb.), where Hawaii takes on Nebraska in the AVCA/NACWAA Showcase. It is only the seventh time Hawaii opens its season on the road -- the first since 2001 -- with the goal to have the final trip have bags tagged for SAT (San Antonio, the site of the final four).

It will be anything but easy. As will the first four weeks of the season, where the Wahine have the potential to take on six of the top nine ranked teams from last year in their first eight matches.

"I'm not sure if it's the toughest schedule we've ever had, but it's certainly one of the most challenging," Shoji said. "The first trip is awfully tough. We're playing Nebraska and it's pretty much a home-court advantage for them. And the next night will be either Stanford or Penn State."

Just as he doesn't know the second night's opponent, Shoji is not sure of his starting lineup. Although he has all seven starters back from last year's 30-1 Sweet 16 team, there could be some changes in store.

The Wahine players have from tomorrow's first official practice until the team leaves Aug. 24 to make their case. It's pretty much a given that junior All-American Kanoe Kamana'o will be setting and senior second-team All-American Victoria Prince will be in the middle, but ...

"We've got a lot of players in the mix," Shoji said. "The starters from last year have the inside track. We know what they can do, they've proven that they can play. But the level of play has to be higher than it was last year. I think the players know that."

Some of the changes began in spring, when senior Susie Boogaard was moved to the right, where she played as a sophomore, and 2004 WAC Freshman of the Year Tara Hittle was moved to the left. The search for a second middle continues, with sophomores Juliana Sanders and Kari Gregory -- who shared the position last year -- battling it out with redshirt freshman Nickie Thomas.

The Wahine are blessed and cursed with a plethora of talented left-side hitters, headed by returning junior Alicia Arnott, one of four players to start all 31 matches last season. She led the team in kills (483, 4.09 kpg) but hit only .220; she also was second in aces (32) and third in blocks (349).

"Arnott is one of those who played extremely well, contributed all year and basically never came out," Shoji said. "I wouldn't say it's her position to lose, but we've got a lot of players in the mix."

Among them are redshirt freshman Jessica Keefe and junior transfer Sarah Mason. Mason, from Hilo via Oregon, was impressive in the spring match against Nebraska.

"Mason could be a force," Shoji said. "She played the left but can also play the right. It may just depend on the needs of the team."

The unknown is freshman Jamie Houston, a 6-foot-2 Fab 50 selection from Alabama who signed in the spring. She played middle in high school, but her future will be as a left-side hitter.

Some are comparing her to former Wahine All-Americans Teee Williams and Kim Willoughby, both of whom went on to become the NCAA Player of the Year.

"Houston is an X factor," Shoji said. "She has a great vertical and can really hit the ball. She might give us some more athleticism on the left, but it's too early to say what kind of contribution she'll make."

Adding depth is former Wahine softball player Caroline Blood, who saw limited action last season. Shoji likes the 6-footer's athleticism.

Defense should again be solid, anchored by senior libero Ashley Watanabe. She has recovered from her broken finger, an injury suffered just prior to the NCAA first-round match with Colorado State; she sat out the last three matches, leaving her eight digs shy of the school's single-season record.

Her backups include returning sophomores Kelly Ong and Raeceen Woolford. There will be at least four walk-on candidates in camp, but with 16 players already on the roster, there is only room for two on the practice squad.

The newcomers expected in camp are freshmen Lia Chun, a 6-foot hitter from Leilehua; 5-8 hitter Rayna Kitaguchi and 5-2 defensive specialist Jayme Lee, both from Hawaii Baptist; and Kauai's Jennifer Lindsey, a 6-3 middle. Another possibility is Kelli Whitaker, a 6-foot hitter who is transferring from Vanguard University, an NAIA school in California. She is a graduate of Calvary Chapel High, the alma mater of former Wahine Jennifer Roberts.

"I don't foresee cutting anyone who was with us last year, but we will take the best 18," Shoji said.

Hawaii lost just two players from last year's team in middle Melody Eckmier and the versatile Teisa Fotu, who was used at four different spots.

"We certainly have some things going for us," Shoji said. "But we have a very tough schedule early. Last year, we won all the close ones, except for Wisconsin.

"I think Nebraska and Washington will be the teams to beat. After that, it's pretty wide open. Everybody lost key players."

The Wahine won six of seven five-game matches, the only loss coming 21-19 in Game 5 against Wisconsin. The season's lone loss came on the third trip to the mainland in less than four weeks, in the eighth match in five cities between Nov. 19 and Dec. 10.

"We won't make excuses," Shoji said. "But I know the players felt our season shouldn't have ended in the third round (of the NCAA tournament).

"And I don't think anybody wants to rest on what we did last year. It was a great season that everyone feels ended too soon. There is the feeling that we should have gone further."

The Wahine will be facing some changes in itineraries with three new teams in the WAC. The Louisiana Tech trip will include a stop at New Mexico State now instead of SMU; they will add Idaho to their Boise State leg; and Utah State is part of the San Jose State trip.

Personally, Shoji will be facing a major change. It will be the first full season without his father. Kobe Shoji died Nov. 13, the night of the last regular-season home match.

"I think about him all the time," Shoji said. "I have a tendency to look over into the stands during a match and, this year, there will be someone missing. It will be strange without him.

"I will still have my mom (Chiz) there, but I know I have lost one of our best fans."

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