Jane Croson's all-around game is superb in her return from suspension
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 2, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 2:57 a.m. HST, Nov 2, 2012
Jane Croson needed 15 minutes Thursday to remind people that for all her wild and crazy offense, what ninth-ranked Hawaii missed most is her ability to serve as a back-row security blanket.
In her first volleyball match in a month, Croson collected 10 digs in the opening set of a 25-8, 25-19, 25-18 Big West Conference win over UC-Santa Barbara.
Key: The Wahine hit .305 and outdig the Gauchos 41-34
Next: UH vs. Cal Poly, 7 p.m. Saturday, OC Sports (Ch. 16)
"I just wanted to get every ball I can," Croson said, "because it felt good to be out there."
"She's in the right spot and you can't teach that," UH coach Dave Shoji added. "She's one of the reasons we had a good night. She's a six-rotation player. She passes, plays defense and obviously she hits.
"We struggled without her, to be honest, but it looked pretty smooth tonight. Defensively, anything hit in her direction came up. She makes it look easy and it's really not that easy."
A Stan Sheriff Center crowd of 4,238 saw the Rainbow Wahine (20-2, 13-0 Big West) run their NCAA-best string of conference wins to 68. It also saw the popular Croson come back from a monthlong suspension for breaking undisclosed team rules.
There was a gigantic poster of her face waving in the upper deck. On the floor, Croson had clearly not missed a beat, finishing with a season-high 19 digs, eight kills and two rim shots off UCSB libero Taylor Formico's left shoulder.
It looked like the same Croson but, of course, it was not. What happened — and she and Shoji are still not saying what it was — was serious. For the rest of this season and probably her career, a gifted player who kids idolize is basically on probation.
"On the court, I still need to focus on wanting to get better," said Croson, who ran and worked out for the three weeks she could not practice. "When I came back I had that urge, I wanted to practice every time I stepped on the court. I have to have that mindset.
"Off the court, I need to get my school work done and Dave has a couple things I still have to do. I need to meet those requirements. It's going to help me out."
The Gauchos helped Hawaii out Thursday. Their offense imploded piece by piece, beginning with extremely poor passing and five UH aces. When UH swept them in Santa Barbara a month ago, the Gauchos hit just .058. They bumped that to a meager .086 this time, going through two setters — including Punahou graduate Ali Santi — and 19 hitting errors.
The Wahine attack flourished with four players at eight kills-plus. Hawaii hammered the Gauchos in the opening set harder than it has hammered any opponent since the season opener against Albany.
Four hitters combined to go 9-for-10 in that set. The missing link was National Player of the Week Emily Hartong, who started slow — again — but buried her last three swings.
That helped Hawaii score 19 of the last 22 points, with setter Mita Uiato serving nine straight.
Santa Barbara funneled its frustration into a 9-6 advantage in Set 2, before the Wahine went on a 15-4 tear to break it open again. Libero Ali Longo served six in a row and Hartong went for five kills in the set.
UH brought Ashley Kastl in on the left in the final set, sending Hartong opposite the setter. That began badly, with the Wahine falling into a 9-6 hole. Senior Emily Maeda helped them out by serving five straight.
Hartong would finish with a match-high 11 kills on 26 swings, her lowest totals since before Croson went out.
"Hartong is clearly the best player in the Big West this year," said UCSB's Kathy Gregory, who, like Shoji, is in her 38th year of coaching and in all kinds of volleyball halls of fame. "She clearly is."
The win dropped Santa Barbara (13-13, 6-5) back into a pack of five Big West teams with five losses. The Wahine have clinched at least a tie for the Big West title with five matches left.
"It's hard to tell how they are," Gregory said. "Physically they have the talent, but we didn't give them much of a challenge. It's the best talent in the league and more depth than anyone else."
It was UCSB's first match in Hawaii since 2001, and one of its quickest. It took the Wahine 83 minutes to reach 20 wins for the 34th time in their long history, including the last 19 years.
Hawaii hosts Cal Poly Saturday at 7 p.m. before heading out on its final conference road trip.