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Volleyball coach building strong team

by Chuck Cordill, assoc. editor

If successfully coaching NCAA Division II women’s volleyball was merely a case of assembling talented players and getting them all into uniform on time for the first serve, HPU Head Coach Tita Ahuna could easily bring a beach chair to games—complete with a straw hat and those fruity drinks that come with a miniature umbrella.

Perhaps that’s what coaches at this level dream about in their few hours of leisure. But reality is a splash of ice-cold water in the face. Ahuna is one of the most respected coaches in her field and she’s blessed with a squad of nine talented newcomers as well as six return players, two of them seniors. Her challenge is molding this young talent into a team that can prevail in a crowded field of teams equal in ability. The good news is, Ahuna likes what she sees.

“ This team has started to mesh early, more so than most of our past teams,” said Ahuna. “Everyone is starting to get comfortable with each other; they are starting to communicate better.”
In athletics, early season games can sometimes set the tone for the rest of a season. Those who burst out of the starting block with a flurry seem to hold an advantage. Those who stumble at the beginning sometimes never regain their composure. The start of a season can either “make you or break you.” But what happens when you know you have the potential for greatness, but it doesn’t always show up in the win-loss column?

Ahuna and her 15 ranked HPU Lady Sea Warriors ponder many of those questions after opening the 2003 season with a 5-2 record. Ahuna and her squad feel they have the physical talent to play at the top of the Pacific West Conference this year. She believes it’s just a matter of how hard they are willing to work for it.

“ We have the potential to go far,” said Ahuna. “If we can just do the ‘little things’ correctly, I feel that the only team that can beat us is ourselves.” Ahuna recently got feedback from sophomore outside hitter Flavia Brakling that, in her opinion, sums up the situation. “Flavia told me, ‘Coach, at times we can do amazing things out there, but we also make some stupid mistakes that change the game.”

Whoever put together the Lady Sea Warriors schedule must have wanted them to be battle tested early. HPU hosted 5 ranked Barry University and 2 ranked University of California-San Diego on consecutive nights, falling to both teams in agonizing five-game losses. In the first match, played Sept. 4 at the Mid-Pacific Institute, HPU out hit Barry .259 to .102 in attack percentage and dominated the unbeaten Buccaneers in games two and three. But errors and mental lapses let Barry back into the match and they ultimately prevailed. The final score was 25-30, 30-10, 30-20, 27-30, 13-15.

The next evening, the Lady Sea Warriors hosted UC-San Diego at St. Andrews Priory with fairly identical results. After dropping game one, HPU took games two and three and looked in position to upset the favored Tritons. But again, errors came back to haunt the Lady Sea Warriors and the Tritons slipped from the islands without a loss. The final score in that game was 24-30, 30-24, 30-22, 28-30, 14-16. UC-San Diego is currently the top-ranked team in NCAA II.

Outside hitter Nadica Karleusa took the losses personally. The 6-foot-2 sophomore from Belgrade, Yugoslavia leads the team in kills, with 123, and has a .358 attack percentage. Karleusa, who fills the middle blocker position, plays with intensity and emotion that reminds some of former, two-time All-American Debbie Sant’Anna.

“ In some ways, I feel personally responsible for the losses,” she said. “There were times in those games I felt I could have done some things better. I had trouble sleeping for about a week after those games.”

“ It’s a little frustrating to come within two points of winning against good teams,” said Brakling, who is currently second on the team with 113 kills. “It hurts to lose, but those two games were also good tests of our ability. It shows that we need to work on concentration when we’re out on the court.”

Ahuna echoed that sentiment, saying the pair of losses might have been a blessing in disguise.
“ We’ve been challenged early on this year in some great games,” said Ahuna. “When you play the best, you can only get better. The areas you need to work on become apparent immediately. I’m still very proud of what the ladies did out there. We just have some things to work on if we’re going to reach where we want to go.”

Ahuna says the two losses lit a spark in the individual players as well as the coaching staff. In addition to working on the mental errors that hurt her young squad, Ahuna wants them to toughen up and put the opposition away.

“ When you play at this level and have a team down, you can’t afford to let them back into games,” said Ahuna. “We are working hard at finishing. There’s nothing worse than giving 110 percent and then cruising at the finish.”

Ahuna carries the importance on finishing strong into practice. She has the team running a lot to increase stamina, and in her words, “keep running through the finish line, not three steps behind it.”
Karleusa feels that while practices can be grueling—“so much running,”—they are energizing as well. “Right now my battery is full of energy,” she said. “I feel the same energy from my teammates. We’re ready to go.”

“ What’s really promising for the coaching staff is for us to see the ability we have to dominate when everyone is working together.” said Ahuna.

HPU, ranked 22nd in preseason, opened play Aug. 29-30 at the Hawaiian Style Tournament, hosted by the University of HawaiiHilo. HPU was a perfect 4-0 through the tourney, beating 16 ranked Northern Colorado. The Lady Sea Warriors easily swept past St. Mary’s of Texas the following week. The team traveled to the U.S. mainland Sept. 22-26 to play a pair of games against Pac West rivals Western New Mexico and Montana State University-Billings.




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