“I didn’t even think about playing in college, first of all,” Robyn Ah Mow-Santos said. “And when I was in college, I never thought I could be on the national team. When I was a kid in high school, I never thought I would leave the island.
“So I never thought I was going to coach in college. And in Hawai’i?”
Yes, in Hawai’i. Because when Dave Shoji retired in February after 42 years at the helm, the Rainbow Wahine tabbed one of their own, one of the greatest players in school history and a former assistant coach in Ah Mow-Santos.
The 5-foot-7 setter grew up in Hawai’i, played there from 1993-96, and then after a prolific Olympic and pro career returned as an assistant from 2011-15.
“I never thought Dave was going to leave,” Ah Mow-Santos said last week, laughing. “First I thought he was going to leave a while ago, and then, nah, he said he was going to stick around.
“And then I met my husband (Niobel Santos, who is in the Army) and he got stationed in Las Vegas. Dave was like, ‘You’ve got to stay,’ but I couldn’t stay. What about my kids?”
At the time, she had two. Now, the family includes her 14-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter and 7-month-old daughter.
So they’ve been living in Las Vegas, where Niobel’s job will keep him there for another two years.
Robyn said that Niobel told her to apply.
“I said, ‘I can’t, I just had a baby, we just moved here, we’re about to move into the house we built, and we’re selling our house in Hawai’i. How am I going to go back? And do you understand how much traveling there is and about recruiting and who’s going to watch the baby?’ I have a 6-year-old who just started kindergarten and had just given birth to my now 7-month old and I asked him, ‘How am I going to do this? You’re not going to be here. You have to stay in Vegas.’ “
But he convinced her to go after it.
“And two hours before the deadline I put my resume in. Yeah, I waited really long. I was talking to a lot of people, close friends, and they all said I had to do it.”
That was largely because the prevailing thought not only in Hawai’i but in the college-volleyball world was that Ah Mow-Santos was the perfect fit for the job.
“Really? I don’t know. People have been saying that, but I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I just love volleyball, period. I love being around it. I got into coaching, which is awesome. I love working with kids and stuff and there’s my passion for Hawai’i. I love Hawai’i volleyball, I know what it stands for, I know what it means to play there. Maybe that’s why they say that.
“Because I never was the head coach anywhere. So I didn’t think I was going to get it.”
Accordingly, Ah Mow-Santos said she was surprised when she was hired.
Said Shoji when Ah Mow-Santos was introduced this past February 20, “the selection of Robyn Ah Mow-Santos is an excellent choice. She has the passion for the game, she found success at every level as a player and she paid her dues as an assistant coach and is now ready to assume a head-coaching position. She will have my full support and I wish her nothing but the best.”
Former Hawai’i assistant Scott Wong echoed those sentiments.
“I think she’s going to be great,” said Wong, who is entering his third season as the women’s coach at Pepperdine. “The fans love her, she has a great history there and she knows the program really well. And she has a huge passion for the program. So she’s going to be great.”
Ah Mow-Santos, 41, who was a two-time All-American for the Rainbow Wahine, is a member of the school’s Sports Circle of Honor and the Hawai’i Sports Hall of Fame.
Her pro career included stops in Portugal, Italy and Switzerland. She joined the national team in late 1998 and stayed through three Olympics, winning a silver medal in 2008 in Beijing.
Five-time Olympian Danielle Scott was a long-time teammate of Ah Mow-Santos’.
“We knew each other so well when we played. She knew what I was going to do and she knew how to give me the ball and I knew where to be,” Scott said. “We had a great connection. And beyond that, she’s just so passionate about what she does. Whatever it is.
“And she has such a way about her that commands respect. But she’s also loving and nurturing, too. She knows the game so well, she studies it, and I just know that she’s going to do great things at Hawai’i.”
Ah Mow-Santos’ mother passed away before the 2008 Games.
“I could have kept playing, but I decided to stay home and take care of my dad,” she said. “And everything went from there.”
That included getting back in school to finish her degree and serving as a student manager.
She said it was very different working for than playing for Shoji.
“It was kind of weird,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think he realized I had grown up. He said, ‘Can you do office work?’ I’m like, ’Yeah, Dave, I can do office work.’
“I guess he was thinking to back when I was in college, but growing up on the national team, you’re checking in the bags and doing everything and traveling all the time. ‘Yeah, Dave, I know how to travel, I can set up the hotel, I can set up the plane, I can set up the cars’ ‘You sure you can do that?’ Yes I can. But what I would like to do is coach in the gym.’ “
And don’t mistake her for the director of operations, which almost every Division I program has. She laughed again.
“He didn’t have a director of ops,” Ah Mow-Santos said. “Now we’re trying to get one.”
Hawai’i finished 23-6 last year, 15-1 and atop the Big West. The Rainbow Wahine beat USC in five in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but then got swept by home-standing Minnesota.
Accordingly, the 2017 roster is somewhat depleted. The losses included All-American opposite Nikki Taylor, one of the most prolific players in school history, and middle Annie Mitchem.
“We need hitters,” the coach admitted last week in Orlando where she was recruiting at AAU nationals before heading to Minneapolis for USA Volleyball junior girls nationals. “It’s a rebuilding year.”