POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 26, 2010
When fifth-ranked Hawaii opens its volleyball season tomorrow against 22nd-ranked San Diego, expect three new faces to be starting for a Rainbow Wahine team that appears comfortable with its new look.
All-Americans Kanani Danielson and Dani Mafua return, along with 2009 Western Athletic Conference freshman of the year Brittany Hewitt and All-WAC libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue.
UH coach Dave Shoji has junior transfer Chanteal Satele slated to start on the right and freshmen Michelle Waber and Emily Hartong on the left and in the middle. Shoji's two other freshman recruits -- Kaela Goodman and Mita Uiato -- are next up on the right and at setter, respectively.
This recruiting class could be the most compelling in 25 years. Shoji believes all four "would definitely start for any WAC team," but Hawaii's volleyball world works backward.
The Wahine have won the last 12 WAC championships and don't have a conference match for another month. They need to win now, against the four ranked teams they will see the next three weekends -- opponents who play in better conferences with much better power rankings.
Along with a challenging nonconference schedule, the first-year players also have to adjust immediately to playing under the Stan Sheriff Center microscope. The country's biggest volleyball crowds and a statewide TV audience will be watching, and waiting, for another final four. The Wahine have led the nation in attendance longer than they have owned the WAC.
"I usually love playing in front of crowds," Waber said. "The energy on the court is the most amazing feeling ever. When you are on the court and you get goose bumps and it's super intense and the crowd is all crazy that's my favorite kind of match."
San Diego and the heat of the moment are capable of changing her outlook. Shoji will watch reactions closely at this weekend's Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational. Crowds are a major reason why recruits come to Manoa, but over 35 years he has seen the downside.
"It will be interesting to see when she has a couple errors in a row how she will react because the crowd here goes deathly silent when you play poorly," he said. "We'll have to see how she reacts to that."
What he expects from Waber is solid ballhandling and blocking, and the ability to put balls away with a hitting percentage near .200. Waber hopes she can clear her mind of all the information she has taken in the past few weeks and let her instincts take over. So does Shoji, who has Hartong next up on the left side if Waber struggles.
"She just has to go play and not worry about all the technical and tactical things now," the coach said. "But she will have to learn that and get better at it. I don't expect her to be perfect, make the right reads, make the right selection of shots all the time. It's going to be a long learning curve for her."
RAINBOW WAHINE VOLLEYBALLChevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational
» When: Tomorrow through Sunday
» Where: Stan Sheriff Center
» Tomorrow: Kansas State vs. No. 16 UCLA, 5 p.m.; No. 5 Hawaii vs. No. 22. San Diego, 7 p.m.
» Saturday: San Diego vs. UCLA, 5 p.m.; Hawaii vs. Kansas State, 7 p.m.
» Sunday: Kansas State vs. San Diego, 3 p.m.; Hawaii vs. UCLA, 5 p.m..
» TV: All matches live on KFVE
» Radio: Hawaii matches live on KKEA 1420-AM
"Just work my hardest and transition," Hartong said. "Always be available (offensively) and open up other hitters. And work as hard as I can on the block, touch everything."
They have earned Shoji's faith, so far. Both came in focused almost solely on working hard. They brought talent, but that tenacity is what has them playing.
Those on the bench are not far behind, Shoji said. If Hartong struggles, he won't hesitate to put in junior Alexis Forsythe or freshman Kristiana Tuaniga, who redshirted last season. Goodman might have come the farthest the past few weeks and he says Uiato is "not much of a dropoff" from Mafua.
There are lots of options, at least for now. If that is still true Monday, opening weekend will have been a success.