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Seattle's best?

Wahine seek first Final Four since 2009

By Ann Miller

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 28, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 09:21 p.m. HST, Aug 28, 2013


It has been nine months since Hawaii had one swing in Seattle to reach volleyball's Sweet 16.

The Rainbow Wahine would like nothing better than to pick up where they left off and grind their way back to the city that left them sleepless, and that hosts this year's final four.

The 11th-ranked Wahine start the 2013 season Friday with the usual opening-night anxieties. Those are only amplified by their first opponent — reigning NCAA champion Texas.

But this group is the rare mixture of sugar and spice where everyone is nice. Spring workouts and this summer's typically tedious two-a-day practices have been relentlessly upbeat. The 18 personalities have perked along happily, without drama or bitterness.

Even Dave Shoji, in his 39th year as coach, has never seen anything like it.

"Most years there's always people who aren't connected and don't mingle well," says Shoji, who should become his sport's winningest coach next week. "This group, everybody bought into it at the (summer) camp and they are just having fun."

Emily Hartong, the soft-spoken All-American who took that swing to upset Washington at last year's subregional, is now senior captain on a team with six other seniors. All know the anguish of coming up heart-wrenchingly short in their finest, grittiest performance, which ended last season.

While they are still searching for their identity — and starters — on the court, their personality is in-your-face friendly.

"Everyone comes from different backgrounds and we all have different personalities, to say the least," Hartong says. "But together we all get along great. … Of course there's always the minor competitive bickering, but other than that everyone gets along really well. We treat each other like sisters almost, with that respect as well. We know certain boundaries and they haven't been crossed."

She characterizes this group as charismatic, with a wonderful chemistry that has withstood the rigors of an offseason that featured a free-for-all at four positions.

In stark contrast, Hartong also senses a passion for the game and willingness to fight, even from unexpected sources such as quiet sophomore Tai Manu-Olevao. "On the court you hear her aggression," Hartong says. "She's loud and shouting for the ball. It shows people are really motivated to win this year and go after it."

Shoji has been encouraging his players to pick a theme for the year, and offering an assist with an unusual number of summer off-the-court inspirations.

The staff brought in motivational speakers, including notoriously quiet assistant coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos. There have been bonding exercises involving blindfolds, scavenger hunts and talent shows.

What Shoji wants to see against Texas, and all through what could be his final season, is the team that stood toe-to-toe with Washington, on the Huskies' court, last December and never backed off.

He expects all his players to be better, more refined and disciplined, precise in their positioning as blockers and defenders. They have to be to weather storms that will wash over them against huge teams like Texas.

Only Hartong, all-region setter Mita Uiato and libero Ali Longo — Penn State's gift of aloha last season — are assured of starting. They are the heart of this team dominated by exceptionally kind seniors.

Leadership should not be a problem. The players insist chemistry will never be an issue. Hartong believes her team's finest trait is its willingness to face adversity.

Shoji hopes they are right.

"You really can't tell until you've played and faced some adversity," he says. "The other thing is, what happens when people don't get the opportunity to play as much as they want to play? That will define us as well — if the team can keep a positive attitude. We will have to wait and see how the team evolves. By the second or third week we should have an idea of how we are."

That is what this front-loaded schedule is all about. By the time the Big West starts, Hawaii should know if the beauty of its team is truly more than win deep.

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