By Cindy Luis
TEN years. Has it been that long?
For the players on that last national championship team, it seems like yesterday.
For volleyball-crazed Hawaii fans, it seems like forever.
No one thought, on that cold and snowy December night in Indianapolis, that the University of Hawaii would NOT win another title for 10 years.
Suzanne Eagye was
part of an unheralded
recruiting class that
became national champs.
This was a program of winning. Of winning tradition. This was a program that was the national runner-up in its first year of collegiate competition.
This was a program where -- as coach Dave Shoji told his freshmen recruits in 1984 -- every single player to wear a Wahine uniform had won at least one championship during her stay.
That was the pressure heaped upon freshmen Tita Ahuna, Mahina Eleneki, Diana Jessie and Suzanne Eagye when they first walked into Klum Gym in 1984. They were a poi-dog group, lightly recruited, but expected to continue the legacy of a program that had achieved three championships in five years.
For three seasons, they disappointed themselves more than their fans, unable to get beyond the regional final or nemesis Pacific.
Finally ... finally ... with the Player of the Year (Teee Williams) and a budding All-American setter (Martina Cincerova), they broke through.
Past Pacific in one of the most emotional matches ever played in Klum Gym. To the final four at Market Square Arena, where Hawaii subdued Illinois and then overwhelmed Stanford, 15-10, 15-10, 9-15, 15-1.
The team members have gone on to be Olympians, pro players and coaches, teachers and moms. They still wear the Hawaiian enamel rings engraved with "1987 NCAA CHAMPS."
"It's as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday," said Mahina Eleneki, a volleyball coach and teacher at La Pietra/Hawaii School for Girls. "It's exciting we still hold the distinction of being the last.
"But I'm a faithful fan and I never thought it would take this long to win another. Especially in 1988. The four of us seniors were gone, but there was still a good nucleus there with Teee (Williams), Karrie (Trieschman Poppinga) and Martina
(Cincerova). I don't know what made it work for us."
Every member of the 1987 team contacted say it was the same thing: Heart.
Except for the 6-foot-3 Eagye, they were short by collegiate standards. They were big on overachieving.
"We did whatever we had to do to get it done," said Eleneki who is 5-foot-6. "The desire was there. Our hearts were in the right places."
"What sticks in my mind was we had our own personalities, our own lives, and we weren't buddy pals outside the court," said Tita Ahuna, head volleyball coach at Hawaii Pacific and teacher at Kalakaua Intermediate. "But on the court, there was a spark, a magic."
"We did struggle. We knew there was a tradition to uphold and we worked our tail ends off. Winning (the title) was always the goal. Maybe some people were happy that we finally made it to the final four but I wanted to win. After that first night (against Illinois), I knew we would."
Teee Williams was the NCAA Player of the Year.
Jaime Paet Apo was a 5-3 sophomore defensive specialist, the smallest of the smallish Wahine. Her junior year, UH placed second to Texas; as a senior, top-ranked Hawaii fell to Long Beach State in five in the regional final.
"Those four seniors were such a big part of our winning," said Apo, a math teacher at Kamehameha Schools (her alma mater and Ahuna's). "I remember being in the title game. Tita was so pumped up. She turned and yelled, 'Do it for all the people back home. Do it for Kamehameha.' I knew there was no way we were going to lose."
She and husband Todd Apo have a 4-month-old daughter, Cassidy.
Suzanne Eagye Cox played professionally in Europe and returned to Hawaii for two years. She, husband Tim, and their two children left last November for Nashville, Tenn., where she is running her own volleyball camps.
"I was surprised after being away from Hawaii for six years people remembered me," Cox said. "I felt I had come home again. The fans were always so great.
"You can't beat winning the whole thing, but I think the biggest match was beating UOP in Klum for the regional. It was such a feeling of accomplishment. UOP had been our nemesis and that was our first goal. The final four was our second."
"That is one of my two all-time favorite teams," said trainer Melody Toth said. "They exemplified what sport is all about: to take to task what the coaches had to teach them and reach their full potential.
"The motto that year was, 'Going home to Indiana' which is where I'm from. It was their Christmas present back to me. They weren't tall so they had to work harder. They were all heart and soul."
"I wasn't even a volleyball player," said Diana Jessie Nunn, a case worker for the federal prison system in Willingborough, N.J. "It was a fairy tale that came true. It was really a shocker to finally beat Pacific and get to the final four. When we got there, it was like there's no way this is going to get away from us."
The semifinal match with Illinois set the table. Hawaii trailed, 14-8, in Game 1 but rallied to win, 19-17.
Illini coach Mike Hebert had coached Ahuna at the World University Games the previous summer. He said he saw the look in Ahuna's eyes when trailing in Game 1 and knew it was over.
Shoji wasn't sure until Game 4 against Stanford. It took 12 minutes to convince him.
Hawaii has had some tremendous teams since then.
The 1988 team made it to the final before losing to Texas. It was the first time no California team had been in the championship match.
In 1989, Hawaii was host for the final four and planned on being home for another title run. But the Wahine faded against Long Beach State in the regional final in rally-scoring; a new rivalry was born.
Two years ago, the Wahine took a 31-0 mark into the regional final against Michigan State, only to break a state's heart in five games. Hawaii reached the final four for the first time since 1988 last year; a flu-stricken Angelica Ljungquist and the Wahine were no match for Stanford.
"I think after you win something, you obviously think you can win again," Shoji said. "Certainly, I didn't think we would not win one for another 10 years."
Assistant head coach Dean Nowack left the program after the 1989 season when a second back surgery prevented him from getting back into the gym to do his job. He's a sales rep for Cook Island Distributors, the distributor for Calloway golf clubs.
"The '87 team was a tough bunch of great gals," said Nowack, married to former Wahine player Marcie Wurts. "The championship was something special for a group that wasn't super athletic. Diana, Tita and Martina were three of the toughest players ever in the program."
The restructuring of the playoff format prevented other great Wahine teams from getting to the final four. In 1986, the NCAA went to a strictly regional seeding, which put the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 nationally ranked teams in the Northwest Regional that year.
Many consider the Hawaii-Pacific regional final in '86 as the true national title match. The Tigers went on to defend their NCAA championship, sweeping Nebraska.
"The '87 win over UOP was one of the best wins ever in Klum gym," Nowack said. "It was one of the greatest wins for the program, after being down so long and not being able to beat UOP."
Teee Williams was named Co-Player of the Year in '89, sharing the honor with Long Beach State's Tara Cross. The two players ended up together on the U.S. national team, competing in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
Williams is currently playing indoors professionally in Germany and is engaged to be married next July.
"That '84 class was probably the least recruited freshman class I'd ever had," Shoji said. "Obviously, Teee Williams made a huge difference. She was the one impact player that we brought in '87. I think we would have been competitive without her but she made everything work.
"The nucleus of the '84 team went through a total metamorphosis, an almost agonizingly long process of becoming a good team," said Shoji. "It was just a matter of them hanging in there and going through all the hard, hard work. You don't do that unless you have some heart."
Where are they now?
Dave Shoji talks strategy with Martina Cincerova.
Player Class Now Teee Williams So. Playing professionally in Germany Mahina Eleneki Sr. Teacher, coach at La Pietra/HSG Jaime Paet So. Teacher at Kamehameha Schools Karrie Trieschman Fr. Professional beach player, model Martina Cincerova Jr. Married, living in Czech Republic Leeana Merriweather Fr. Returned to Florida after 1st year Tita Ahuna Sr. Hawaii Pacific volleyball coach Suzanne Eagye Sr. Runs volleyball camps in Tennessee. Jami Long Fr. Working in Honolulu Diana Jessie Sr. Prison system worker in New Jersey Staff member Job Now Dave Shoji Head coach In 23rd year (625-124) Dean Nowack Assistant coach Golf club distributor Melody Toth Trainer In 21st year