Trading spaces

After transferring from Oregon,
Hilo native Sarah Mason is fashioning
a solid first season with Hawaii

"Haute Lava."

"Big Island Big."

"Pretty Tall."

Those are just some of the label names that Sarah Mason might consider when she starts her own apparel line. The fashion design major has been making her own clothes since she was about 12 and sees haute couture in her future.

But for the next two years, Mason has designs on becoming the best volleyball player she can be. The Hilo native has changed schools to do that, trading the rainy environs of Oregon for the Manoa mist of Hawaii.

The process continues tonight for the 6-foot-3 junior left-side hitter against Boise State in the Western Athletic Conference opener for both schools. No. 9 Hawaii (5-5) puts its 91-match WAC winning streak on the line against Boise State (4-3) at the Stan Sheriff Center.

For Mason, the difference between Eugene, Ore., and Manoa has been like night and day. She came from the Pac-10 cellar-dwelling Ducks -- who were 1-35 in conference her two seasons -- to the Rainbow Wahine, going for their 10th consecutive WAC title.

"The expectations are so different," Mason said. "Here, there is competition every day between you and your teammates. They are pushing you every day to give 100 percent. There is no room to not go for a ball or slack off because there's someone right behind you to take your spot.

"At Oregon, I was one of the better players and it was basically a guaranteed (starting) spot every time. It was always me trying to pick up my teammates, help them out. It was exhausting, mentally, emotionally and physically. To keep losing in the Pac-10 was heartbreaking, knowing you worked hard every day and weren't getting any results. You weren't going to get any fulfillment other than knowing you had played a good game."

Mason excelled for the Ducks, being named to the All-Pac-10 Freshman Team in 2003 and conference honorable mention last season. As a sophomore, she led Oregon in hitting percentage (.257) and the conference in aces (37).

After two years of "character building," the 2003 Big Island Interscholastic Federation Player of the Year transferred to UH. Her performance in the spring match against Nebraska (six kills, .556) provided a glimpse of her potential.

Between March and August, Mason improved enough to earn a starting spot. Her Wahine debut was spoiled when she turned her right ankle in Game 2 of the season-opening loss to the top-ranked Huskers.

She sat out the next four matches, coming off the bench during the win against Cal State Northridge. The next night as a starter against then-No. 10 UCLA, Mason had 14 kills, three blocks, two aces and eight digs in her first-ever victory over the Bruins. Although she's not 100 percent -- "It still hurts, but nothing I can't handle," she said -- Mason is expected to make big contributions against the Broncos tonight and Loyola Marymount tomorrow and Saturday.

"Obviously, the injury set her back," Wahine coach Dave Shoji said. "I think she's gotten a lot better since spring, but she has a long way to go. Part of it is just being new to the program. She's still learning our system, the tempo of the sets, the demands on defense.

"She hasn't been in the program long enough to understand the things that we're trying to do. But she is probably the most complete package of all our outsides."

Shoji had liked what he saw when Mason played in high school, but he didn't have an available scholarship for the St. Joseph product. Walking on was an option that Mason declined to take.

"I kind of wanted to get away from the islands and do something new," Mason said. "I had always wanted to play (for UH), but I didn't take the opportunity when I had it out of high school. If I could take anything back, that would be it.

"I don't regret going to Oregon. I learned a lot. But I wanted to come home, play in front of my family and friends. I wanted the 'Hawaii Volleyball Experience.' "

It reunited her with childhood friend and teammate Alicia Arnott, who also grew up in Hilo. The two figure they were about 10 when they first began playing organized volleyball together and competed at their first mainland tournament in the 12-year-old division.

"Mason was so skinny that her kneepads wouldn't stay up," Arnott, a 6-foot junior hitter for the Wahine, said. "I was about an inch taller than her then. I'd take her extra (3) inches now.

"Since spring, I think she's improved her passing. She blocks well and being 6-3 helps her see the court well."

Mason's vision for this season includes not dwelling on the team's record (5-5 ties the worst start, by the 1978 and 1992 teams) but to learn from the losses, all of which have come to the four teams currently ranked Nos. 1-4.

"I'm not saying I'm satisfied with our record, but you have to give credit to the teams we lost to," she said. "Losing is not a bad thing. It has helped us know our weaknesses. You can always learn something from a loss."

Much like drafting a garment design, Mason is still piecing together what being a Wahine is all about.

Her current label is "Under Construction."

Wahine Volleyball

Today: Boise State (4-3) at No. 9 Hawaii 9 (5-5), 7 p.m.

Tomorrow: Loyola Marymount (9-1) at Hawaii, 7 p.m.

Saturday: Alumnae match, 5 p.m. Loyola Marymount vs. Hawaii, 7 p.m.

Radio: Live, KKEA (1420-AM).

TV: Live, KFVE (Ch. 5).

Internet: www.hawaiiantelmedia.com (fee) www.sportsradio1420.com (free).

Tickets: Tomorrow $3-16. Friday-Saturday $3-$18.

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