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Wahine get to see where they stand against Nittaidai

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    Hawaii’s Emily Hartong will make the transition from middle to left-side hitter with more passing responsibilities.

Volleyball exhibitions with Nittaidai count for nothing, but have always made for compelling theater and proved to be of great value. The team from the Nippon National Sports Science University has either brought out the best in the Rainbow Wahine, or taken them out, making it excruciatingly clear what they lack.

Either way, the match has proved beneficial to both programs. They meet again tonight at the Stan Sheriff Center in a spring exhibition starting at 7. Hawaii, fifth in last year’s final poll, will also play an exhibition against 12th-ranked Nebraska on March 23 on Maui. That match, at War Memorial Gym (2,000 capacity), is sold out.

The first time Nittaidai and Hawaii got together, UH coach Dave Shoji took his team to train in Japan before the 1979 season. A few months later, UH won the first of four national championships. The relationship has blossomed even as visits have grown fewer.

There have been some 20 meetings, the last in 2008 as part of a three-way "mini tournament." In a remarkable offseason match four years earlier, Nittaidai beat UH 17-15 in the fifth. The most memorable numbers were in the dig column, where the Wahine were blown away 96-57. Hawaii, which has always taken pride in its defense, could not match the Japan team’s discipline and simply did not have the same will to keep the ball off the floor.

All-American Kanani Danielson — one of the best ballhandlers in program history — is now gone. That makes the push to keep the ball off the floor, and directed straight at the setters, much more difficult. The Wahine’s passing and defense are huge question marks going into the 2012 season, which begins in five months. Those skills, and finding two new starters in the middle, are what the spring is all about.


>> What: Exhibition vs. Nittaidai
>> Where: Stan Sheriff Center
>> Today: 7 p.m.
>> TV and radio: None

"We will have to pass and serve a lot better," Wahine associate coach Scott Wong said Saturday after scrimmages with Hawaii Pacific and Brigham Young-Hawaii. "I told the team we played really well 80 percent of the time, but 20 percent of the time passing and serving were not great. We need to be a lot better because it doesn’t matter how physical we are if we can’t do those two things."

Much of the passing pressure will fall on left-side hitters Jane Croson and Emily Hartong, a converted middle. Croson passed last season as a freshman. Hartong has never passed. Coaches are working on her to keep her body and arms low and her weight forward when she receives serve.

"Dave is always pushing my shoulders down so my hands are touching the floor," Hartong says. "He wants us on our toes so we’re down low, but I tend to go on my heels and come up. That’s why I take the ball up high. I need to keep my arms down. That’s the hardest part. I also need to stay disciplined and do the technique right."

Wong likes her movement and touch on the ball. He agrees with her assessment, but adds she’s "come a long way for a middle blocker." The sophomore is one of 48 players chosen, out of 250 that tried out, to train with the U.S. national A2 program this summer. That time — she expects to get back as the second summer semester begins — should help her with serve-receive.

So will tonight. She will see a team full of precise passers similar to the two Hartong would most like to emulate — "two amazing passers" named Kanani Danielson and Erik Shoji, the coach’s son now in his senior year at Stanford.

Hawaii’s raw trio of middle blockers will also see great technique from Nittaidai’s undersized middles. Kalei Adolpho returned from basketball Monday and will be available. Redshirt sophomore Kristiana Tuaniga and redshirt freshman Jade Vorster have been taking all the repetitions up to now and played front row only for nearly 4 hours Saturday.

"TK (Tuaniga) needs to work on blocking more than hitting," Wong says. "Jade needs to work on hitting more than blocking. It’s neat to see them come such a long way. Jade, within a year, has come a long, long way. She’s worked real hard in the weight room, in the gym and on the beach. That’s helped her a lot."


» Nittaidai will also help Hawaii debut its sand volleyball team Saturday at the Queen’s Beach Sand Box in Waikiki. UH’s seven doubles teams and Hawaii Pacific’s five will take on Nittaidai’s 12 teams starting at 8 a.m. UH and HPU will play a single-elimination doubles tournament in the afternoon, with a champion crowned around 4 p.m.

» Nittaidai plays the Sea Warriors indoors Thursday at 7 p.m. at St. Andrew’s Priory. It will play at Brigham Young-Hawaii on Saturday.

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