With junior Kanani Danielson, fifth-ranked Hawaii knows precisely what it is getting on the left side:
One of the best volleyball players in the country.
It is that other left-side position, occupied by senior Aneli Cubi-Otineru the past few years, that the Rainbow Wahine are wondering about. A freshman will probably start opposite Danielson, the Kamehameha graduate who earned first-team All-America status as a sophomore.
Michelle Waber is there now, according to UH coach Dave Shoji. She came from California with impressive versatility and a 6-foot-3 frame that leads him to characterize her only "flaw" as lack of college experience. Emily Hartong, who might be an even more versatile freshman, is now third on Shoji’s depth chart.
"Kanani has got the ability to be great at everything, and she has that desire to be great," says UH associate coach Scott Wong. "She’s getting there. The reality is she carried a big portion of the team last year, and she’s going to carry a big portion of the team this year, and she’s only a junior. She did that as a sophomore, and she’s got two more years to get better. That’s a long time."
It will go far too fast for Hawaii. Danielson, even with her small stature, is the Rainbow Wahine’s only true terminator. She also might be their purest passer, defender and blocker, and the only serious threat out of the back row. Shoji called her serve the only weak part of her game last year, and now he is encouraging her to let loose with what has apparently become a lethal jumper.
"She can hit it at practice," he says. "That’s how it was last year; she wasn’t consistent in games. I’m positive it’s better."
STARTING LINEUP STILL UP IN THE AIR
It’s a problem — a good problem, but still a problem. After nearly two weeks of practice, and with the season opener less than a week away, Dave Shoji is not ready to commit to a starting lineup.
"Nothing official," the Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach said yesterday.
Shoji will likely use various lineups in this afternoon’s scrimmage, which is only open to booster club members and players’ families. The two most likely lineups include returning starters Dani Mafua, a senior setter; senior libero Elizabeth Ka’aihue; junior hitter Kanani Danielson and sophomore middle Brittany Hewitt. One scenario has freshman Emily Hartong in the middle and freshman Michelle Waber on the outside, the other has Hartong on the outside and junior Alexis Forsythe in the middle.
The two right-side options are junior transfer Chanteal Satele and freshman Kaela Goodman.
Fifth-ranked Hawaii opens the season Friday against San Diego in the second match of the Chevron Invitational. The tournament opens with a 5 p.m. match between Kansas State and UCLA.
The rest of her game is so good you rarely notice it because she makes it all look easy. The notable exception is hitting, which sets her apart from the crowds of good players and the 6-foot-plus specialists that now populate All-America teams.
For two years, Danielson has clawed through increasingly bigger blocks. Hawaii’s fast offense is ideal for her dynamic style, allowing her quick feet to beat opponents to the ball and her quick arm to make them crazy.
"She sees the block well, so she knows when to bring it down and when to go high," Shoji says. "She has a wicked line shot, so if they give her any line she can turn it down there. She has all the shots, so whatever they give her she is going to hit it. You can’t take anything away from her."
Waber’s versatility is an entirely different look. She can go over blockers and put up a formidable wall simply by stretching. Her value will be measured by consistency, how quickly she adjusts to the college game at the net and masters ball-control skills and court coverage away from it.
Shoji also hopes she can weather the freshman storms that will inevitably come.
"She’s good now, but she’s going to be terrific in the future," he says. "I’m not sure she’s quite ready for prime time, but she will have to play. She’ll have nights when she’s not going to look good, and she just has to persevere."
LEFT-SIDE HITTER DEPTH CHART
1. Kanani Danielson, 5-10, junior
If she can, Shoji believes Hartong, an accomplished blocker and dynamic hitter, can make more of an impact in the middle. But she is clearly an option outside and has picked up passing — a relatively new skill — fast.
"She has some pop that is just hard to come by," Shoji says of Hartong. "Everybody doesn’t have that pop in their arm."
Chanteal Satele is another option on the left if Hawaii craves more offense, but she is more suited to the right, along with Corinne Cascioppo.
That leaves Danielson and a freshman on the left, initiating that quick offense that took Hawaii to last year’s final four with its passing and digging, then terminating rallies. Sounds simple, but it is a lot to ask.
"It’s a big load," says Wong, a three-time All-America hitter for Pepperdine. "There are a lot of things you have to be responsible for. I’m biased, but I think it’s the most important position on the court. You need to have great players at every position, but a left side is often touching the ball two times every rally — passing or digging and hitting. The more you touch it, the more important you are."