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They’re in good hands

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    Dani Mafua was an honorable mention All-America pick last year, leading Hawaii to the final four.
    Mita Uiato has the talent to duplicate those feats.

As a setter, looking into the future usually goes no farther than the time it takes a volleyball to come over the net. They have a few seconds, maybe, with a multitude of decisions to make in the interim. Then they actually have to execute, and deal with the consequences.

For University of Hawaii coaches, looking into their setting future goes farther than that. There is today. Tomorrow. This year and next. There is senior Dani Mafua and freshman Mita Uiato. If the lines grow fuzzy it could be a good thing.

Mafua came to UH from Mid-Pacific in 2006 with relatively little experience at the position. Yet she has matured into one of the premier setters in the country. She is coming off an honorable mention All-America season where the Rainbow Wahine hit .305 — third in the NCAA behind national champion Penn State, which beat the ‘Bows in the Final Four, and runner-up Texas.

"I think the technical part of her game came through in her first few years and last year the tactical matched up with her technical side," said UH associate coach — and former setter — Kari Ambrozich. "That’s what put her so far ahead. We’ve seen her blossom and I think she is still coming into her own. She’s not done getting better."

Uiato’s setting background is the polar opposite of Mafua’s. She grew up in California setting everyone in sight and has the pure hands and polished look to prove it.

She also looks as if she is 12. She has a sweet baby face atop a 5-foot-8 frame and claims to be 130 pounds, but barely appears to be in triple figures.

First impressions can be misleading.

"She’s a great athlete, a great setter, has natural touch," Mafua said. "She’s pushing me, definitely pushing me.

"She’s scrappy. It doesn’t show on her face but she goes for everything. That’s what I like about her. Being a freshman, she still doesn’t look at me like it’s your position. I know she’s battling and I really like that. She’s come in with that mentality instead of surrendering."

There is no time for surrender, and no inclination. Uiato’s great setter’s hands must learn the Rainbow Wahine’s uptempo offense. Her innate touch allows her to make quick adjustments, but it is a dramatic change and she also has to master the nuances of nine new hitters fighting for positions. She is extremely quick, but coaches are already harping on her to get her feet to the ball and square up to set.

And, as with real estate, the three most important elements at her position are ultimately location, location, location. Uiato must learn to put up a hittable ball off any kind of mangled pass. When the pass is good, she needs to know how to get her hitters the ball in a place where they can do several things to it.

Uiato also will have to deal with her utterly unintimidating appearance. Opponents will try to hit over her at every opportunity. Her blocking has to rise above her size, as does her defense.

Still, after two days of practice, the UH coaches were convinced they had made a good choice. And they haven’t even seen her "just flat-out set" in front of 7,000 fans yet.

"She just has great touch," Ambrozich says. "One day of working on her speeding up the set and she’s already figured it out. That’s pretty amazing."

Mafua’s work in her senior season is a bit more sophisticated. She knows precisely what the coaches want. It is just a matter of giving it to them, and getting the ball to the hitters, more consistently.

She has grown more thick-skinned — a necessity for a setter — but still needs work on her confidence. There is also always a focus on keeping her "compact." Translated, that means staying low while she gets her feet to the ball, then coming up "through it" while she delivers.

"She needs to be in a little more athletic position the whole time until she actually makes the delivery," Ambrozich said. "That’s when she goes fast and glides and can dish it from anywhere. It’s really important for her to be able to run anything."

The wild card might be how much Mafua grows without the mentoring of former associate coach Mike Sealy, who created her collegiate game. He is UCLA’s head coach now and will bring the Bruins to the season-opening Chevron Rainbow Wahine Invitational Aug. 27-29.

The Hawaii staff doesn’t appear worried at all about Mafua, who had an eye-opening double-double of 44 assists and 17 digs in her last match eight months ago, or her heir apparent, Uiato.

For now, the more the lines blur between the present and future setters, the better.

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