Series breakdown: The middles
Apologize but just realized that the story on the middles never got posed
In last Saturday's paper 8-17
By Ann Miller
SECOND OF FIVE PARTS
Three disparate souls will roam the front row as Hawaii's middle blockers this volleyball season. Associate coach Scott Wong won't even attempt a depth chart when it comes to Jade Vorster, Kalei Adolpho and Kristiana Tuaniga.
"It's a free for all," Wong says. "It's awesome."
The Rainbow Wahine might not overwhelm opponents in the middle, but the possibilities are endless. Head coach Dave Shoji is looking for something in between those two extremes.
"All they really have to do is hit and block and make some off plays," he said. "I'd like to get two-something kills a game from the starting middles and a high hitting percentage. It would be nice if they could block balls down, those are easy points, but I just want them to work hard to touch balls and run the transition. That's almost as good.
"I think we'll be better there. Kalei, Jade, TK (Tuaniga) will all be better at that. We really need them to be a factor in there, take up space and be a thorn in the other team's side."
What Hawaii needs is more of what it got last season, and much more often.
In her first season, Vorster willed her way to all-conference honors, out-working and out-analyzing almost everybody. She led the Big West in hitting (.388), led Hawaii in blocking (1.08 per set) and was third in kills (2.11).
She is the team's tallest player at 6 feet 4, came the farthest (Florida) to get here and might be the best student in the classroom — 4.0 GPA in chemistry — and on the court.
"She is very analytical and bright," Wong said, "and she can use that strategy when blocking and hitting. She does the best job at that of the three."
She still needs work on her lateral speed and armswing and, like all the middles, consistency. Vorster hit .500 or better six times last year, but there were times she struggled offensively and defensively.
Adolpho struggled more. She came here after lifting Molokai to state championships in volleyball and basketball. Now she starts for the Wahine in both sports. She is a phenomenal athlete, but so far potential has outplayed reality.
"She came in as a raw athlete, not much volleyball experience, not refined, not a lot of technique with her armswing or blocking and those are the two things she has to be good at," Wong said. "Now she is becoming much more skilled."
As a freshman, Adolpho replaced an injured Brittany Hewitt at Utah State and collected eight stuffs, taking eight swings and burying seven. She started last year and again hinted at greatness, but averaged just 1.58 kills and a block.
Those numbers, combined with Vorster's, are not enough for a team ranked 11th in the preseason poll. That's where experience and Tuaniga —eager to break through in her final season —come in.
"You've got to be able to hit efficiently and block," Wong said. "That's obvious. But championship teams are not just about those two things. It's about being able to make broken plays, recognize what's going on on the other side and being smarter. Not just reacting to players, but seeing what's going on and saying I want to take out this hitter because she is their best. And serving and defense, too."
The Wahine moved their spring season back so Adolpho could participate more after basketball. She is their most experienced middle and Wong said she had a great spring, growing comfortable hitting the slide behind the setter and starting to better understand "what it takes to see another team and stop them."
"It sounds easy, but opponents have four options, four hitters coming at you," Wong said. "You have to react, quickly get there and efficiently put your hands in the right place.
"Those things need to become more efficient. … We're asking a lot out of her. Physically she can do it. It's a matter of putting the physical part together with the mental part and confidence. I see a different middle blocker out there this year. She's becoming tough. If she hits the ball out, she asks for it again and hits it in the court, harder and smarter. She looks a lot more like a volleyball player."
Tuaniga is just as quick as Adolpho — both get from the middle to the outside in 1.3 seconds — and she can touch 10 feet 4. Wong said he has seen a dramatic improvement in her since last season, and has had encouraging conversations with her about what she wants to accomplish before she goes.
"What we're trying to do with her is similar to what Kalei is focusing on — be in as many plays as you can, deeply," Wong said. "TK is physical too, she can jump, she's really quick. It's just a matter of being focused every single play.
"TK is really good at times. Other times you go, ‘Where is our middle blocker?' She has really, really improved and really wants to be good. She's a senior and her back is against the wall. This is her last chance."