By Cindy Luis
By Ann Miller, from today's paper 8-22
FOURTH OF FIVE PARTS
A glimpse at last year's hitting statistics is all it takes to understand how critical Hawaii's left-side hitter is. Emily Hartong and Jane Croson combined for more kills than the rest of the Rainbow Wahine combined, and Croson missed seven matches.
Hartong went on to become the 27th Wahine to earn first-team All-America volleyball honors. She enters her final season as the team's only true terminator and is entrenched in one of the left-side positions. Hartong, an exceptional athlete, started the game late and played middle her first two seasons. She had a remarkable junior season and isn't close to playing to her vast potential.
"She jumps higher than everybody and her arm is one of the fastest we've ever had," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said. "Her passing and defense were behind where most hitters would be just because she'd never played the position. In that area she is really solid now. Her passing numbers have been really strong."
Her work ethic, on a team full of gym rats, is relentless.
"Emily is not the most skilled and never was the most talented, but she worked her way into being a great hitter, a great athlete," associate coach Scott Wong said. "She is always wanting to improve no matter how tough it is or how challenging the obstacles are. That's her intangible."
The other left-side hitter position is an open door and it could be revolving.
Croson's seven-match indoor suspension and the dysfunction that followed in the sand season led to her leaving the program. She took many distractions and a .231 hitting percentage — 55 points lower than Hartong's — with her, but UH is now forced to find an exceptional defender, full-time passer and four kills a set to replace her.
The Left-Side Hitters Depth chart
>> Emily Hartong, 6-2, Sr.
The line on the left is long, with sophomore Tai Manu-Olevao — who gave up her redshirt season when Croson was suspended — at the front for now. Manu-Olevao also leads the pack on the right and she has missed four Sunday practices because of her LDS faith.
Hawaii has at least two Sunday matches on the schedule, starting with perennial postseason participant San Diego Sept. 1. Manu-Olevao won't be there.
"For Tai it's a personal choice and it is something I support," said Shoji, who never dealt with this dilemma his first 38 years. "Obviously she doesn't need my support. It's her choice and I respect her for it. We have others of the Mormon faith and they choose to play. That's another personal choice.
"I'm not sure how we will deal with it. She's missed four practices, but she puts in extra time on her day off and it's not like she's missed because of a negative reason. And, we practice so much with different combinations … we will have a lineup we are comfortable with on Sundays."
Even last year, thrown into a situation unprepared, Manu-Olevao showed flashes of brilliance. She can sky and could be one of the few shut-down blockers on the team. Her armswing, defense and passing are "drastically" improved, the coaches say.
Ashley Kastl, a part-time starter last year after transferring from Arizona State, is also right there on the left. She hits a "heavy" ball, tough to dig, might be the steadiest passer among the hitters and was a terminator at ASU. But last season she never quite put it together.
"She got into her own head," Wong said. "This year there's a lot of maturity I'm seeing in her. …She has figured out a way over the last six or seven months to really shake off the last play. I saw it evolve on the sand.
"Her overall game, passing and hitting, are all better since last year. She is a fighter."
Ginger Long and Nikki Taylor are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Long is too small by top-20 standards, but is so athletic and well-rounded she can spark a team from every inch of the court.
Taylor is the tallest Wahine, which gives them a different dimension. "She's got qualities you can't duplicate out there," Shoji said. "She can be very big."
She is also very inexperienced and not ready to play all six rotations. The question for her could be not if but when.
And when for Taylor and her teammates is next Friday, when they open against NCAA champion Texas. Between now and then, Shoji and his staff have to find a terminator to take the pressure off their All-American.