Few players can calm a volleyball coach like a senior libero. The value of Elizabeth Ka’aihue is beyond measure for the University of Hawaii.
The Rainbow Wahine’s passing will revolve around her and All-American Kanani Danielson. Both will cover more of the court when this season starts Friday, as Hawaii tries to ease in a new third passer.
Ka’aihue is Hawaii’s best defender, able to re-direct rockets with a single twitch, but passing is primary. Without it, the fifth-ranked Rainbow Wahine’s quick offense slows and bigger blocks swallow it.
Ka’aihue was on the All-WAC freshman team her first year out of Punahou, becoming the second Wahine in history with two 30-dig matches the same season. A year later she played behind senior Tara Hittle, but last year Ka’aihue came into her own.
1. Elizabeth Ka’aihue, 5-8, Senior
2. Emily Maeda, 5-6, Sophomore
3. Alex Griffiths, 5-8, Junior
She was All-WAC second team and discovered her own comfort zone, allowing her vast volleyball instincts to take over. She is always around the ball and has learned how to deal with mistakes and UH coach Dave Shoji, thanks in part to her sister-in-law — former UH All-American Kanoe Kamana’o-Ka’aihue.
"Kanoe told me just listen to Dave’s words and don’t really take how he says it," Ka’aihue says. "It took me two years to figure that out. Now I see him do that (yell) to younger girls and I whisper to them, ‘Don’t take that personal.’"
Away from the heat of the moment, Shoji is immensely complimentary of the first libero UH recruited. He would like to see more from her serve and ability to lead. Beyond that, he can’t even quibble.
"She just has to play like she knows how," he says. "Liz is just very, very good. This is probably the best she has ever played. She can handle any kind of ball in her direction no matter how hard it’s hit. That’s not something that fluctuates game to game. That is always going to be there for her."
There is more of a question behind Ka’aihue. Sophomore Emily Maeda, a 2008 Roosevelt graduate, redshirted one year, then was injured before last season. Her collegiate statistics consist of two digs in four matches, but Shoji has been high on the former hitter since she walked on two years ago.
"She knows what’s needed of her," he says. "Her skills are much improved. Her weakest area is probably her demeanor. Emily is probably too nice a person. She’s got to be aggressive, want the ball, tell players to get out of the way. That’s what you need in that position. She’s learning."
"That" position for Maeda this year will probably be defensive specialist. She will come in for a front-row player to pass and play defense. She will also be auditioning for 2011 libero, and how she transfers her skills from scrimmage to playing in front of 7,000 at Stan Sheriff Center could impact recruiting.
"It would make me feel a lot better about that position going into next year if she could come in and contribute," Shoji says. "If for some reason she can’t, we’ll probably have to bring in one or two more people."
Alex Griffiths is also capable of providing defensive comfort. She redshirted last year after transferring from Vanguard University in Southern California, near where she grew up. She does not have the speed of Ka’aihue and Maeda, but does have a volleyball savvy that cannot be taught.
Backup setter Mita Uiato is an option in the back row as a non-passer, similar to the role Stephanie Brandt played last season, when she was third on the team in aces.