Less than a year ago, Elizabeth Ka’aihue announced her 21st birthday to an international TV audience with a wink and sly smile at the NCAA volleyball final four. It was a classic snapshot of the grinning, grinding, good-natured life of the Ka’aihue family’s finest athlete.
"She’s the best athlete by far," says brother Kila, who could be starting at first base for the Kansas City Royals in the spring. "My sister got the best of everything to come out of our family."
Elizabeth’s family is unanimous in its athletic praise of third-ranked Hawaii’s libero. And this is an ohana where gifted professional athletes and musical artists proliferate (Henry Kapono Ka’aihue is her uncle).
5-8 senior libero
» Major: Family Resources
» Graduation: May 2011, plans to pursue a masters in nursing
» High School: Punahou (2007)
» Highlights: At 4.54 per set, is on pace to shatter school record for career dig average (4.22 Ashley Watanabe 2004). … leads WAC in digs at nearly five a set and is third in aces (0.29). … had 31 aces in her career coming into senior year and has 22 this season. … All-WAC second team 2009. … Academic All-WAC 2008. … WAC All-Freshman Team 2007. … became second UH player to post two 30-plus dig matches in a season. … four-time all-league and three-time all-state in high school. … won state high school titles in 2003 and 2004.
Western Athletic Conference
» When: 7 p.m. tomorrow
» Where: Stan Sheriff Center
» Who: No. 3 Hawaii (26-1, 15-0 WAC) vs. Idaho (13-13, 8-7)
» TV: Live on KFVE
» Radio: Live on KKEA, 1420-AM
» Senior Night: Celebrating Dani Mafua and Elizabeth Ka’aihue
Father Kala was a star athlete at Punahou and played for the Hawaii Islanders Triple A baseball team. Mother Rose was a versatile athlete at Kamehameha who came from a family that put up a volleyball net at every family picnic. Her mother calls Elizabeth before almost every match to remind her to point her belly button to the target on serve-receive. Brothers Kila and Kala are both professional baseball players.
Some 20 Ka’aihues will be at tomorrow’s Senior Night at Stan Sheriff Center, where Elizabeth and Dani Mafua will be celebrated after the Idaho match. Another 20 will be in Las Vegas next week at the WAC tournament, with one set of relatives planning to drive 23 hours from Missouri.
This is not your average SUV-driving "soccer mom" family. The Ka’aihues have gone to great lengths for their kids’ pursuits, and their kids are exceptionally talented and just as devoted.
Years ago, Rose drove Elizabeth to a Bobby Sox game and Kila and Kala Jr. — now married to former UH volleyball All-American Kanoe Kamana’o — to their baseball games. By then it was time to circle back and pick them up again.
"We laugh about that now, but I would not change anything for what we have today. …," Rose says. "It’s been a wonderful, blessed ride."
This was their life before the boys graduated from ‘Iolani to professional baseball and Elizabeth got the volleyball bug at age 10 from club coaches Joey Miyashiro and Aven Lee.
"She would come home," Rose recalls, "just grinning ear to ear."
Sports has always been an integral part of the family and Elizabeth channeled the best of both her brothers’ athletic worlds. She completely comprehends Kila’s soft-spoken, thoughtful words of advice and also gravitates toward Kala Jr.’s gift of happy gab — "she can rock the place like nobody else," Kila says — to lift teammates.
"I’ve asked her to become a more vocal person on the court," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji says. "Dani and Kanani (Danielson) are quiet. We really needed someone talking back there, directing traffic, and she is such a positive kind of kid everybody feeds off that."
The Rainbow Wahine feed off everything their senior libero touches. The little girl who begged for her time in the family batting cage at age 5 has matured into a volleyball player whose game is so sophisticated she has mastered the art of making the spectacular look simple. Other defenders might create more excitement. Ka’aihue makes the difficult look easy and the ridiculous often appear routine.
Those balls that bounce off her forearms and fists do not float directly to Mafua to set over and over again because Ka’aihue is lucky. All those perfect passes re-directing line drives from the other side are not aberrations.
She came to UH from Punahou as Shoji’s first scholarship libero with tons of family talent and a close friendship with Shoji’s son Erik, who could be the starting U.S. libero at the next Olympics.
"Liz and Erik are a lot alike," Shoji says. "They love the game, play it all the time. They need to be around volleyball."
It has taken thousands of hours, buckets of sweat and a growing appreciation for training to become precisely what Hawaii needs in her senior season: Someone who "betters the ball" nearly every time she touches it, and she touches it before almost anyone. Ka’aihue "owns" any ball within eight feet of her, no matter how hard it is hit.
"When you’ve taken a lot of repetitions those kinds of things happen," Shoji says. "Her body is in position. She’s balanced and can make those plays because she just reacts to it. Someone not as skilled in technique won’t come up with those plays because they are leaning one way, cheating another way, got their weight on the wrong foot. Liz is perfectly balanced, able go high and low, left and right."
She will almost surely shatter the UH record for career dig average, despite chasing a mark that came when "games" went to 30 (not 25) and not starting her sophomore year. She also passes more than half the serves.
And, well … there is that wink that describes her sweet personality so perfectly. "She is as sweet, tender and gentle as ever," her mom says. Repetitions have helped there as well, and the realization that this rare ride with "Hawaii’s Team" suddenly seems short and Ka’aihue wants to soak it all in.
When the stranger at Longs wants to talk story now, she enjoys talking a little longer. She will never get this time back.
"It’s amazing how much impact we have on Hawaii," she says. "Just young girls and fans. They are random people you’d never think would watch volleyball and they are always here. It’s pretty amazing."
She is a believer in fate and God’s role in guiding her, along with Shoji’s.
"I realized the yell I always get from him was the same yell he was giving Erik," Ka’aihue says. "It was so awesome. He really pushes players he believes in. He finds a way to get to them and make them better."
She came to Manoa completely open to the challenge. Like her sister-in-law Kamana’o, she was a ball wiper at UH matches in her formative years: "I was always that little girl running around, showing up early."
While everyone else was in awe of Kim Willoughby’s offense, Ka’aihue was "amazed at all the balls she touched." She looks nothing like the lanky Willoughby, but she has worked hard enough to match that remarkable range.
From her brothers, she has learned to appreciate her physical gifts, but emphasize her innate feel for the game and flow.
"She’s finally not in her own way," Kila says. "The last couple years she thought too much and was too technical. That’s a lot of what I do too, get in my own way, try to think too much instead of just playing. What my sister is doing now … she plays her best when she doesn’t think. That’s the best kind of player you can ask for."
From Kamana’o, Elizabeth has learned how to guide others, particularly younger teammates.
From her parents, she has come to appreciate what work, a wink, a smile and unconditional support inspire.
"She’s got what it takes," Kila, the major leaguer, says. "I love watching her play because it reminds me a lot about what I have to do to get after it."