Thursday, August 26, 1999
Star-Bulletin file photo
HPU setter Nia Tuitele set a school record
with 1,468 assists last season.
to repeat after
Though the Sea WarriorsBy Ben Henry
are reigning volleyball champs
and ranked No. 1, they feel
like underdogs to BYUH
Special to the Star-Bulletin
After years of winning, the legend finally found a worthy adversary.
With eight NAIA national championships, Wilfred Navalta has understandably grown accustomed to winning. He has a 350-61 record in 14 years as head coach of the Brigham Young-Hawaii women's volleyball team and is a living legend, in that he was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 1994 - despite the fact that he was an active coach.
A year ago, as he prepared his team for its first season in the NCAA Division II, he was on a string of four-straight championships in the NAIA and his team was ranked fourth in the AVCA coaches preseason poll (it would gain the top spot Sept. 4 and hold it for the entire season).
So a championship certainly seemed within reach. And as the season ended, a championship banner was indeed ready to hang from a Hawaii gymnasium.
But it wasn't BYUH's Cannon Center.
Hawaii Pacific came out of nowhere - literally - to snatch that banner from BYUH. Not bad for a team that went 10-11 the year prior and didn't receive a single vote in the preseason poll, while BYUH, Hilo and Chaminade did.
"They made all the adjustments at the right time, and responded to the challenge," Navalta said. "They deserve everything they're receiving right now."
To win the championship, the Sea Warriors had to beat BYUH, something that hasn't been easy for them.
HPU's first title run in 1990 was tarnished by the fact that it couldn't beat BYUH in five tries, winning only three total sets. The Sea Warriors lucked out in the playoffs that year, as Western Washington took out the Seasiders in a quarterfinal match.
Last year, before a Nov. 21 meeting in the Pacific Regional at Bakersfield, Calif., HPU again couldn't solve the North Shore enigma, losing all five matches to the Seasiders, while it was a perfect 27-0 in other matches. Meanwhile, the Seasiders were 28-1, their lone loss coming to Division I Hawaii.
But HPU pulled off the improbable in Bakersfield by beating BYUH for the first time in 21 matches and four years.
"I even doubted that we could do it," said HPU head coach Tita Ahuna, who has the unique distinction of winning an NCAA championship both as a player (UH, 1987) and a coach. "Any team can be beaten. Now, I firmly believe that."
Although HPU is ranked No. 1 in this year's preseason poll, Ahuna still feels like an underdog to second-ranked BYUH. "I still feel like we're chasing them," she said. "They set the standard."
Although the Seasiders have dominated the Sea Warriors since their first meeting in 1980, winning 76 of 87 matches, Ahuna feels now is as good a time as any to start catching up.
"We still live in that shadow, like we got lucky that night," Ahuna said. "But obviously we did something right. This year we want to prove that it wasn't luck."
The rivalry is getting intense.
"Every year is a challenge, no matter who's in front of us," Navalta said. "I think the girls will play harder when they play HPU, because they're ranked No. 1. Sometimes we play better if we know the talent is better. There's no question HPU will be the team to beat. That's definitely going to create some challenge and motivation."
Still, the two coaches have nothing but respect for each other.
"I'm happy for Tita and her program," Navalta said. "Tita has an excellent style of coaching, and her system is well-founded."
Said Ahuna: "I can't compare us with BYUH. They've got so many guns, it's very hard to stop them. All I can say is that when we meet, it's a toss-up."
A look at the Hawaii teams in the Pacific West's Pacific Division:
Coach: Wilfred Navalta
1998: 28-2, 17-0 PacWest
Key players: MB Arlete Silva (Sr.); S Juliana Lima (Sr.); OH Vanessa Valansi (Jr.); OH Diana Tobiasson (Sr.); OH Brenda Lonergan (SR.); DS Tammy Peniata (Sr.); MB Karla Ribeiro (So.).
Key losses: OH Andrea Gomez; MB Becky Laubach.
The Seasiders lose All-American Becky Laubach to graduation, but retain three more All-Americans: Silva, Valansi and Lima.
Coach: Glennie Adams
1998: 10-20, 4-10 PacWest
Key players: OH Joan Lilio (Sr.); MB Aileenmarie Arnold (Sr.); S Kaarlen Porter (Sr.).
Former Sea Warrior Joan Lilio, who led Chaminade with 430 kills last season, will play a large role in the Silverswords' success. The team is green, with six freshmen and two sophomores.
Coach: Sharon Peterson
1998: 14-17, 8-8 PacWest
Key players: OH Nafi Falemalu (Sr.); OH Jaime Hatcher (Sr.); S Brandi Hori (So.).
Key losses: RH April Jacobson; MB Heather Campbell; S Heather Wride; OH/MB Ginelle Palau.
Peterson is dealing with a young team. "We have potential," she said. "It may take us a little longer to pull together."
Coach: Tita Ahuna
Hawaii Pacific Sea Warriors
1998: 31-5, 12-2 PacWest
Key players: MB Dawn Penebacker (Sr.); MB Hai Yan Wang (Sr.); MB Deborah Sant' Anna (Sr.); S Nia Tuitele (So.); MB Darcy Hales (Sr.); OH Flavia Gabinio (Jr.); OH Kristi Lezchuk (Jr.).
Key losses: OH Tofoi Tuitele; OH Benji Maiava; S Jhoana Maristela.
Most of Ahuna's starters return and she has also added another weapon with 6-foot-3 Brazilian Gabinio, who sat out last season.
"We struggled last season -- it wasn't easy," Ahuna said. "If we would have had (Gabinio), it would have been much easier."