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Shoji valued 'nice bunch'

But the spirited Wahine's pursuit of postseason glory did not come to fruition

By Ann Miller

LAST UPDATED: 4:35 p.m. HST, Dec 5, 2010

On Friday, the 30th annual NCAA women's volleyball tournament moves into regionals without Hawaii for only the fourth time. Coach Dave Shoji finds that tough to take for more than the obvious reason.

A year after reaching the final four, his 29-3 team went somewhere no Rainbow Wahine team had gone before. It won every set of every regular-season Western Athletic Conference match — 62 straight in all, playing with relentless passion for 10 weeks.

Then Utah State got inspired at last week's WAC tournament and 11th-ranked Washington played what it called its finest match in Friday's second round in Seattle.

The volleyball season ended and Hawaii's seventh-ranked team is home.

"I just hope people in Hawaii understand what a great bunch of kids we had, what a really good team we had," Shoji says. "We were victims of some circumstances beyond our control. If circumstances were a little different we could have moved on. You couldn't have scripted a worse scenario coming into these playoffs."

The moment Shoji saw the NCAA's 64-team bracket he was incensed. His 15th-seeded team had to travel for a seventh straight year, while every other seed that put in a bid was home.

The committee was following its "fewest flights" edict, put in after 9/11. That is being challenged by proposed legislation sponsored by the Pac-10 that would automatically keep the 16 seeded teams at home the first week if they can host.

For now, perennially seeded Hawaii heads out every year to face ranked and highly seeded subregional opponents. Penn State and Florida have been home the last 11 years, hosting the likes of Penn and Florida International ... in second rounds.

Shoji was also upset with being placed in what he — and others — considered the toughest subregional. Hawaii, Washington (37) and Michigan (39) are all among the top 40 in RPI. The Duke regional featured the No. 13 host, along with High Point (147), Penn (88) and Ohio (82).

But what hurts Shoji most today is that his extremely amiable team will lose its "heart and soul," setter Dani Mafua and libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue.

"They set great examples for young players as far as work ethic and character and giving everything to the program and being selfless," Shoji said. "I hope that some of it will be captured by the younger players."

It has been. He has described this team all season as simply "a nice bunch of kids" with very little drama. He appreciates those attributes even more as he anticipates his 37th season.

It will be very different from this 36th, which ends at the final four Dec. 16 when Shoji is inducted into the AVCA Hall of Fame. Basically, All-American Kanani Danielson, who will be a senior next fall, and Brittany Hewitt, a redshirt junior, are the only players going into the 2011 season with a position.

With the seniors gone and after the past week's passing problems, caused by asking Ka'aihue and Danielson to cover too much court, according to Shoji, the coach has thrown open the other five positions.

The most pressing concerns are a libero and a hitter who can pass. There are five freshmen coming in, headed by Jane Croson and Jade Vorster, who will enroll next month. A host of libero wannabes are prepared to audition. Sophomore Mita Uiato will get her first serious look at setter. Emily Hartong could play exclusively outside next season.

The Wahine will also bring in UCLA, Arizona, Wichita State, Pepperdine and Pacific early. They will try to win back the only WAC title that has eluded them in 13 years — in what could be their final WAC season.

Hawaii hosts a regional a year from now. Now, Shoji has to figure out how to get there.

"I would say we're going to have really good competition for starting positions next year and all our freshmen and young players need to make progress, especially in the weight room," he says. "We're sorely behind there. Our freshmen need to mature and get stronger, bigger and better."

They need to look just like Washington looked Friday.

"They have had their issues," Shoji said of the Huskies, "but when they are on like that they become one of the premier teams in the country. If they play like they did last (Friday) night, they can beat just about anybody in the country."

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