Mafua set her own standard

Senior setter Dani Mafua will fi nish her career in the school’s top 10 in total assists and assists per set.

VIDEO LOCATED AT THE END OF THE STORY

It's not easy living up to other people's expectations.

That's why Dani Mafua eventually set her own.

‘BIG SHOES TO FILL'

When she first came to the University of Hawai‘i as a freshman in 2006, it was senior All-American setter Kanoe Kamana‘o's team.

Kamana‘o, who graduated from ‘Iolani, was the local star of the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team, the standard of excellence at her position – and a tough act to follow.

"I knew I had some big shoes to fill following Kanoe," Mafua said, "and a lot of expectations."

The 5-foot-10 Mafua, who redshirted her first year, also played behind senior Cayley Thurlby, who was Kamana‘o's backup.

"My redshirt year was a little rough," Mafua said. "It was so intimidating having two seniors battling it out and me, a redshirt, trying to fit in the reps the coaches wanted me to do."

The tests continued the following season. Although Mafua was the starting setter in the 2007 opener against Michigan State, she struggled in the game and finished the rest of the match – and year – on the bench behind sophomore transfer Stephanie Brandt.

"It was very humbling," Mafua said.

Although initially discouraged, Mafua used the adversity as motivation.

"I don't think I would have been as driven to work as hard if (head coach Dave Shoji) kept me in the whole match," Mafua said. "I used practice time and the offseason to better myself physically, mentally and emotionally. I wasn't going to let her beat me again."

HER OWN VOICE

Mafua won the starting spot her sophomore season but not without being compared by fans to Kamana‘o and Olympian Robyn Ah-Mow, another former local-born setter that played for UH.

Senior libero Elizabeth Ka‘aihue said some fans would give Mafua advice on how to improve.

At first Mafua felt pressured to be just as good as her predecessors, but she eventually realized she was her own player and person.

It was the turning point of her career.

"At the beginning it was a little overwhelming but I grew into it," Mafua said. "I'm a different person. I'm here to work as myself, not be someone that was here before. I definitely think I'm stronger physically and mentally from where I started in ‘07 and I grew a lot more thicker skinned."

Ka‘aihue feels Mafua, who is in her third year as a starter, found her own voice.

"Robyn and Kanoe were amazing (but) Dani has carried her own," Ka‘aihue said.

In 2008, Mafua set UH to an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and a Final Four last year – the program's first since 2003. This season, the 'Bows are ranked No. 3 and are aiming for its fifth national title.

She's won her share of awards too. Mafua was an AVCA Honorable Mention All-American last year and is a two-time all-Western Athletic Conference selection – and will likely earn a third honor this season. Mafua will also finish in the school's top ten in assists and assists per set.

Not too bad for a player that didn't set full-time until her senior year at Mid-Pacific Institute and her final year with her club team.

Mafua, who is from Kapolei, primarily played outside hitter but following a mainland tournament her junior year, Shoji offered her a scholarship as a setter.

Shoji felt Mafua could develop into one because of her touch on the ball and her athleticism.

"It took some time but she eventually became a really good setter," Shoji said. "I'm not sure how she felt about it, but I was confident that she could become similar to the really good local setters that we've had."

Mafua was excited to become a 'Bow, but also surprised.

"I wasn't sure how well I'd fit into this program. I had no idea I was up to the standards of being part of this tradition," Mafua said. "(But) I took a serious step in being a committed setter, understanding the game through the setter's eyes."

Shoji said Mafua was dedicated to become a setter that could lead the team to a title.

"She's always been a hard-worker," Shoji said. "It was a process for her because she had to learn the techniques (and) even after learning the techniques she still really wasn't a setter."

But Mafua learned on the job.

"The more she played, the more she got better," Shoji continued. "She got more confident and with the confidence she was becoming a leader at the same time."

And despite how far she's come, Mafua's early struggles keep her humble.

"I don't wanna ever feel like I've arrived," Mafua said. "I have so much room to be better."

END OF A RAINBOW

Ka'aihue, who is close friends with Mafua, said one thing unique about Mafua is her laugh.

"She has the loudest laugh.If we're ever out and somebody's cracks a joke, Dani's laugh will carry the joke on for another 20 minutes," Ka'aihue said with a smile. "Dave's always like ‘Shh'. He doesn't want to get embarrassed."

Tomorrow, Mafua and Ka'aihue will play their last home game at the Stan Sheriff Center against Idaho at 7 p.m. They will be honored following the match.

"I feel like I've just graduated from high school," Mafua said. "I don't even know where time went."

Mafua said that being a Rainbow Wahine is one-of-a-kind.

"There's no where else in the country where you can play in front of more than 6,000 people on a single night and on top of that, them know the game and understand the concept," Mafua said.

She also said playing for UH is a privilege.

"It's like a platform, being able to put on this jersey and represent not only the school, our family and yourself, but also the state," Mafua said. "We're the only (Division I) school in the state. And when we can go out and compete against big-time schools on nationally televised games, that's a platform for us to (show) what we're about."

Mafua said this year's team is the closest it's ever been in her five year's in the program and she is happy to be an older-sister to the younger players, helping them any way she can.

"She's leading by example," Shoji said. "She comes to practice every day with a good attitude, always looking to improve herself.

"She's set a really good standard for practice and the young players can see that," he continued. "That part of her game has always been there and it's a trait that is desired by our coaching staff. We love those kinds of kids."

And fittingly, her humble advice to her younger teammates comes straight from her own experiences as a freshman: fight for your dreams and be your own person.

"Keep battling, keep pushing yourself, hold the next person accountable and be the player that you want to play next to," Mafua said.