U.S. team’s setter ready for a Midwest cheering section

Kawika Shoji grew up in Hawaii, spent his college years at Stanford and lived in Berlin for months at a time as a professional volleyball player.

He visits exotic locations regularly and, by all accounts, is a seasoned traveler.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to hear the 6-foot-3 setter talk about how thrilled he is to visit Kansas for the first time when the U.S. men’s team takes on Argentina in FIVB World League matches Friday and Saturday at Koch Arena.

“I’m really excited to get there,” Shoji said. “I’ve never been before. I can’t wait to see Wichita.”

The reason for his enthusiasm is simple. Coming from Hawaii, his extended family, located in the Midwest, has always traveled to see him. Now he gets to visit them while he makes his first trip with the U.S. team.

“Hopefully a lot of my family members will be able to come from Kansas City and Omaha to watch me play,” Shoji said. “It’s going to be a new experience. I’m excited. I also have family in Fargo (N.D.). We have Midwest roots. Hopefully about 10 of them can make the trip.”

That will be a thrill after playing on the West Coast and in other countries.

Shoji said his mother is from the Midwest, but attended college in Hawaii. She never left, raising a family that featured two exceptional volleyball players. Shoji’s brother, Erik, played college volleyball with Shoji and is currently competing for a spot on the national team’s roster.

Shoji recently was promoted to the national team after years of playing for the organization’s youth and secondary squads. He is one of many young players fighting for a permanent spot on the team.

The 25-year-old is hoping to make a positive impression.

“For me, individually, this is a growing moment,” Shoji said. “I think it’s a growing moment for the whole team. We are all trying to come together. I don’t think any of us should have anything to prove. As long as we play our game, we will be fine.”

That approach has helped Shoji throughout his career.

The worldly traveler hopes it will continue to help him in front of a home crowd.

“It is going to be fun playing there,” Shoji said. “There are a lot of positives and a few negatives with playing overseas. It’s great to travel and see other places and experience other cultures. It is eye-opening, but it can also be difficult. You’re away from family and friends for nine months at a time. Even though it’s a great experience, it’s not always as glamorous as people think. It’s great to play here, too.”