For all the questions that punctuate any opening practice, particularly for a University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine volleyball team with six new faces, one fact is abundantly clear after yesterday. This is Hawaii’s team, from its talented and trusted core to the fringes of a large freshman class.
Tri-captains Dani Mafua, Liz Ka’aihue and Kanani Danielson are keiki o ka aina, with Hawaii state high school, All-America and all-conference credentials.
The fourth returning starter is 2009 WAC freshman of the year Brittany Hewitt. The three open positions (middle, right and left side) are up for grabs among a group of seven. That group includes a hitter who transferred home (junior Chanteal Satele), another (freshman Kaela Goodman) who lived the first six years of her life and every summer on Maui, and a third (freshman Michelle Waber) whose mother graduated from Kalani.
"The leadership is local, no question about it," says reigning national coach of the year Dave Shoji, now in his 35th season. "I think that’s a good thing for the Wahine. The new people already have a sense of family, ohana. They’ve already been taken in by families and they’ve been around enough that they understand the culture here."
If they don’t, there are aunties everywhere to help, starting with Ka’aihue, Danielson and Dani "I’d rather they look at me as a big sister" Mafua. Aneli Cubi-Otineru, the most visible face and voice of the past two UH seasons, has graduated. Now Hawaii gets to see how good a mentor she has been, and how many bodies it takes to replace her as a leader.
"It’s definitely a local girls nucleus returning from last season," Mafua says. "Aneli was awesome to play next to, really hard to replace. But this is a new team, new players. We’re moving forward.
"Everyone here has already adapted to this culture or was raised in this culture. Everyone came in early and feels really comfortable with each other. It feels like a Hawaii team. We try to rub off on the new girls, encourage them to come talk to us. There’s no hierarchy. We’re a team, we’re sisters. We have a common goal."
All the players have been worked out together this second summer session at UH. Shoji and his staff have seen the new players much more than most of their previous recruits. All pretty much know what they are getting as the Wahine bear down on their opening match, Aug. 27 against San Diego, in the Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational.
The final-four question might be all about traits that cannot be coached, like leadership and chemistry. While the early focus will be on the fundamentals of passing and defense and finding a way to fill those three pukas, the core of this team knows that ultimate success might depend on how well their teammates adapt to the unique aspects of Hawaii volleyball.
"I’m just going to tell them to look into the stands and see how many people are here," Danielson says. "They’re not just from Oahu. They come out from the Big Island, Maui … anybody that can make it out here to see us live, they’re out there. This is it."
"We’re family oriented. We might not be related, but we all consider ourself Hawaiian and that’s exactly what we keep showing everybody that comes in: We’re family here and we’ll take care of you if you are away from home, across the Pacific Ocean. There’s no way to drive home. You’re pretty much stuck on this island. That’s why we want to make all these moments count for them."
Hawaii has led the country in attendance from the moment it moved into the Stan Sheriff Center in 1994. Volleyball counts here like no place else. The fans are almost as into the game as the players. And the players, even yesterday in the first of many two-a-day practices leading up to the 2010 season opener, could hardly contain themselves.
"I’m just so excited," Ka’aihue said. "You’re going to love this season."