Dani Mafua came to Manoa as the Great Setting Experiment. Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji coveted her size, the touch in her hands, her athleticism and ingenuity when he recruited her, overlooking the fact she was a hitter just beginning the game because she burnt out on basketball.
Mafua is finishing her senior year for third-ranked Hawaii as the latest Great Setter.
The experiment was successful.
The patient lived and is thriving — particularly the past two years — as she heads into her final home match tonight against Idaho.
» Major: Communications
» Graduation: May 2011
» High School: Mid-Pacific Institute (2006)
» Highlights: Ranks 34th nationally with 10.95 assists per set and is fifth on UH career assists list. … 2009 All-West Region, All-Stanford Regional and All-WAC first team when she led conference and ranked 11th nationally in assists (11.78) and UH ranked third nationally with hitting percentage of .305. … 2008 All-West Region and All-WAC second team. … two-time honorable mention all-state in high school.
» Full name: Danielle Heilala Keali’iwahinekalahanohano’onalani Mafua
Western Athletic Conference
» When: 7 tonight
» 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
It has been one blur of a ride. Obstacles were everywhere, including the timing. Mafua came in as All-American Kanoe Kamana’o left, taking every setting record with her and leaving UH fans, accustomed to world-class setters, in utter awe.
Mafua has overcome every obstacle in a five-year Hawaii career missing just two pieces: The Wahine’s fifth national title — she set them to their first final four in six years last season — and an All-America plaque to put in the middle of her two All-America honorable mentions.
Shoji and his staff, most notably former associate coach Mike Sealy, transformed her into an elite setter one tweak at a time. Mafua’s contribution had to be immense to put their plan into action, pick up all the skills and subtleties the game’s most intricate position demands, then deal with tactics and temperaments.
"For somebody who hadn’t grown up as a setter, it’s very difficult but I just knew she had it in her," Shoji said. "I’m not sure she knew she had it in her. She doubted herself for a long time. It just took time and she wasn’t real patient at first. Now, I really think we have one of the best setters in the country and that’s what we thought we could get with her."
Shoji, Sealy and current associate coach Kari Ambrozich all set in college. Shoji separates great setters from good ones by their ability to take the bad pass and put up a hittable set. Mafua has found her way there and, as she heads out into a "real world" that could include professional volleyball, every phase of her game is still growing.
"Last year, she really came into her own, and this year she has just blossomed," says Ambrozich. "She’s become the complete package. She is a perfectionist, which is a good thing at that position, but sometimes you’ve got to give yourself a little break. She wants to win. Her competitive spirit is great, and she has learned the leadership quality, put more personality into it.
"That’s key for a setter because they are so involved. You’ve got to have somebody upbeat, looking people in the eye, wanting to work with people and make the connection good, and holding people accountable in a good way. And setting the bar as far as work ethic."
Check, check, check …
Mafua never really saw it coming, although she just found a "letter to myself" written in eighth grade. She described herself in five years as "being a Rainbow Wahine, with a full scholarship and enjoying life." She was still playing basketball back then.
But when Shoji showed interest, and Mafua realized sub-6-foot hitters are now a rare commodity in D-I volleyball, she went all in at setter. In her redshirt season she watched Kamana’o, who had seemingly set from the moment she was born, make it all look ridiculously easy.
"When I stepped into that situation," Mafua recalls, "I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how did she do that?’"
The next spring, Mafua was the only setter in the Wahine gym. "I was so frustrated," she says. "After practice I’d just cry because I was so overwhelmed from all the feedback they were giving me. … To have to set everyone was overwhelming, and at the same time I was trying to learn a whole new position and my technique. I felt like I was just winging it."
Stephanie Brandt transferred in that summer. When Mafua struggled as starter in the opening match of 2007, Brandt took over — for the season. Mafua took it as a test of character and met the challenge.
"I remember the season ended in Louisville, and I came back and it was already set in my mind that this is going to be my time and I’m going to make a difference," Mafua says. "In the spring of ’08 I was working hard and grinding it out in the weight room, taking extra reps with Mike. That was the beginning of me coming out and being a different person because I definitely learned a lot from ’07."
Sealy, describing her mechanics as "too loose" and her hands as "too soft and inconsistent," set out to break down "every bad habit I had."
"It was also difficult in the sense that she was a young setter that had to deal with some growing pains filling in for one of the best setters in school history," Sealy said. "There was a lot of pressure on her … some of it real, and some of it she put on herself."
They began to develop Mafua’s own rhythm and cadence, changed her release and "tightened up her lower body" to make jump sets more consistent and athletic. Once Mafua found her tempo and style, it was all about staying there.
"She understood how to run an offense and was always interested in improving, which is a coach’s dream," Sealy said. "Her big challenge was to be strong out there and not internalize everything going wrong as her fault. She had a tendency to let other players’ moods and someone else’s bad vibes affect her.
"I think when she finally realized how good she was, she was able to stand on her own two feet and become a leader. I am very proud of her for that."
When Sealy first met her, he thought he saw "a sweet kid that didn’t have a competitive bone in her body." Mafua converted him, and when he left to become UCLA’s head coach this year she said it "felt like a breakup."
"At times, he knew me more than I knew myself, what I was capable of," said Mafua, who has been dating former UH football player Ralph Ieru for four years. "He could read me body language-wise. That’s what he was really good at, making adjustments and hitting the switches in my head."
Mafua has compensated for his loss by going to Ieru and her parents Jodi and Daniel — "my life coaches" — more, and coming back even harder for her final year. It has gone by quickly. That is her only regret. She feels like the past five years have been a peek into her future, with all the obstacles, obstacles overcome, faith and flat-out fun.
"I see a confident young woman now that is very talented and energetic," Sealy says. "I see someone who might not have had the natural God-given talent from Day 1 to be an elite setter, so she took the long, hard road and made herself one."
» Hawaii coach Dave Shoji won’t grow a mustache, but he will be wearing a blue ribbon tonight in honor of "Movember," a global men’s health initiative this month. It started in Australia in 2003 and now happens annually, with men growing mustaches to raise awareness and funds for men’s health, specifically cancer affecting men. Last year, 255,722 people participated and raised $40 million for research, support and education. U.S. funds benefit the Prostate Cancer Foundation and Livestrong. To donate, visit us.movember.com.