Sunday, November 29, 2015         

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Stats aside, Wahine can dig with best

By Ann Miller


One number stands small in fifth-ranked Hawaii's blitz through its Western Athletic Conference volleyball season, which it will attempt to extend with three matches at home in the next four nights.

The Rainbow Wahine (19-1, 9-0 WAC) lead the conference, and are among the Top 22 nationally, in every statistic but two. One is aces, no surprise after losing their top three servers from last season. The other is digs, where the storied Rainbow Wahine defense is ranked a woeful 157th.

Apparently, it is not that woeful. A year ago, when the Wahine finished 32-3 and in their first final four since 2003, they ranked 227th out of 329 DI teams. UH averaged 13.67 digs then -- an entire dig less than this year.

Tellingly, not-so-storied New Jersey Institute of Technology led the country at nearly 20 digs a set last year. NJIT was No. 194 in the NCAA power ranking.

Dave Shoji's Hawaii teams have traditionally been considered among the elite defensively. Louisiana Tech coach Matt Sonnichsen, whose last-place team leads the WAC in digs, concedes he tries to emulate the UH defense. At last year's NCAA regional, Illinois coach Kevin Hambly said he watched video of USC "crushing balls" against the Wahine, who just kept "making it look easy."

Now, UH is averaging 14.66 digs and libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue is having a brilliant senior season, yet is barely inside the top 80 nationally at 4.62. Ka'aihue is on pace to obliterate the school record, getting nearly half a dig more than Ashley Watanabe collected for UH in 2004, when sets were played to 30 points instead of 25.

Shoji has no complaints, admitting the dig statistic -- one of the few that involves some subjective analysis -- is somewhat misleading.

"I've watched a lot of games across the country," Shoji says. "I think our defense is as good as anybody's. Liz and Kanani (Danielson) probably cover as much ground as any individuals in the country. ... I think it's hard for other teams to put the ball on the floor against us."

Reasons for Hawaii's low dig numbers run rampant, but usually start with its often one-sided scores. The Wahine have won their last 14 matches and 35 straight sets -- the longest set streak since they blew through 54 in a row in 2002. The average winning score in the streak is 25-17, which translates to fewer points and shorter rallies.

Another imposing reason is sophomore Brittany Hewitt, who leads the country in blocking. That, happily for UH, limits digging opportunities. Hawaii's opponents are hitting just .130 and that drops below .100 in the WAC. The Wahine are hitting .269, another point shrinker.

Nothing about the UH defense is new, but Shoji believes these players -- despite the national digging statistics -- play his game as well as any team in the past. Individual defensive skills are stressed in practice. Players are taught to keep their hips square and always be in position, a place that changes with who is on the other side of the net. Some, like Danielson, spend extra time studying opponents' tendencies.

"The big thing is if they are stopped and balanced they can react when a ball is deflected without having to shift their weight," Shoji says. "That's a lot of technique. A lot of other players seem to be on the move. You can dig balls if you are moving in the right direction, but when the ball changes directions, that's where I think our players might be better than most."

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