Wide-eyed looks on the faces of fourth- and fifth-graders told you all you needed to know about Hilo-based interest in UH Rainbow Wahine volleyball.
They were sponges, those kids, seemingly soaking in every word and all the instructions from University of Hawaii women’s coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, who brought players from her Division I team for a few days of clinics and teaching on the Big Island.
After a day at Keaau High School, the group finished up Sunday at UH-Hilo with a turnout of more than 150 youngsters ranging from fourth grade up to high school seniors.
And at the end, the coach once again came into contact with the past and the future.
The former was in the person of Pauline Quinsaat, wheelchair bound, but not about to miss out making contact with her past life as a Rainbow Wahine, back in the 1950s.
“We were good then, too,” Quinsaat said after meeting Ah Mow-Santos and having her picture taken with the third-year coach who replaced the legendary Dave Shoji after 40 years at the Oahu school. “We have always been good, and (Ah Mow-Santos) is carrying on the tradition. Very nice to see.”
Quinsaat said her granddaughter and now, great granddaughter are carrying on the family tradition, and that’s just how it works at UH women’s volleyball.
“This is so good to be here,” Ah Mow-Santos said, “we don’t get out to the neighbor islands enough, but I want to do it a lot more. It has been a long time since we did this, but I remember once, as a player (1993-96), we went to Maui and it was great break for us.
“I would like to do a spring break tour,” she said, “something I need to talk to the administration about. I would like to go to a neighbor island, bring in a team have a a couple games, it would be good for us, good for the neighbor islands and we could probably find a mainland team that wouldn’t mind coming to Hawaii for a few days this time of year.”
Something like that could breathe oxygen into the brush fire the Rainbow Wahine started here over the weekend while paving the way toward the future.
Sunday, there were 65 4th-8th graders, another 53 in the 9th-12th grade section and 35 more in the Hawaiian language instructions.
“They all seemed so excited,” said Aven Lee, the school’s director of volleyball, “that’s what made me feel good about this. If we had any who came here because their parents made them, they either hid it well or we converted them early on. The level of enthusiasm was high.”
Ah Mow-Santos and her players kept it moving, kept the young ones jumping from one court to the next, one discipline to another. You can hardly imagine a better coach to replace Shoji, who built the program into a national power, where it has remained.
A setter, she still plays at 43, and as veteran of the USA national team, Ah Mow-Santos played in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2004 Athens Olympics, and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she helped Team USA earn a silver medal.
Through it all, UH has been a team that attracted the best players and the coach would like to see the fruits of the weekend’s labor turned into future players. Shoji didn’t get criticized a lot but when he did, it often had to do with the recruitment of mainland players.
“I hope we can energize these kids,” she said Sunday, “and I think we can, because I saw a couple girls here that I remember attending our camp (on Oahu), last year. It would be great if we end up getting a player years from now that was here this weekend, and it’s certainly possible, I encourage them to give it everything they have and maybe we will see them in a few years.”
No one questions the level of interest in women’s volleyball here, but it isn’t just that people like to watch balls fly over nets into the enemy court.
Nebraska, with a women’s team that has risen to the level of the Rainbow Wahine, might be the only other school in NCAA Division I with a team as popular as the UH squad, but even in Lincoln, it would spark an argument as to what is the second most popular team at the school behind the football program.
That’s not really up for debate at UH, though the men’s team is currently playing at a Top 5 level. Over the years, Hawaii is seen as distinctive with women’s volleyball being the second most popular sport at school. Attendance records over the decades substantiate the claim.
“We are very fortunate,” Ah Mow-Santos said, “to have the kind of success we’ve had — that’s really what brings them out — and we’re also fortunate for the kinds of fans we have. I’ve traveled, basically, all over the world with volleyball, and our fans are special, they stand out because of the knowledge that have for the game.
“The only place I think is somewhat comparable is Japan, they go crazy for it over there,” she said, “just crazy and loud and wild.
“But the difference with our fans is that they truly appreciate the game, they will applaud for good volleyball, even when it’s the other team. Every place else, they cheer for their team, but they don’t, to me, have the knowledge and appreciation of our fans.”
That was seen at the end of the Sunday clinics when virtually everyone in the gym got in line for coach and player autographs on team posters.
It won’t be forgotten.
“It’s been a long time,” Ah Mow-Santos said, “but that’s going to change. Everyone that was here and the ones who weren’t here should know, we will be back, you have my word.”