FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Middle blocker Juliana Sanders is seven kills away from matching her total for last year.
WAC sees UH as vulnerable
There seemingly has been a cloud of vulnerability hanging over Hawaii in the first six weeks of this women's volleyball season.
Two longtime winning streaks have already fallen this year: consecutive victories against unranked teams -- halted by Loyola Marymount at 205 -- and consecutive victories at the Stan Sheriff Center -- dumped by Penn State at 39.
There have been noticeable chinks in the Rainbow Wahine armor, little dents such as losing more matches this season than in the last three years combined, such as the 6-6 start that is the worst in school history.
In less than 30 minutes last Saturday at the Pan American Center, the cloud was vaporized, the dents hammered out. That's how long it took Hawaii to win a Game 5 for the first time in three attempts, smoothing out the rough spots in rallying past New Mexico State.
It also kept perhaps the most important streak of them all alive ... that of 94 consecutive Western Athletic Conference wins, a run dating back to 1998.
"I knew personally that I wasn't going to let New Mexico State win," said Hawaii junior hitter Sarah Mason, who earned WAC weekly player honors in part due to her 19-kill performance against the Aggies. "We were not going to allow a team nobody has heard of beat us. It was a matter of pride.
"I think it was a testament to the character of our team. It showed that we can pull through the adversity. It has lifted us up."
The No. 11 Wahine put their newfound confidence and nation-leading conference skein on the court tomorrow night against Fresno State. It does not bode well for the Bulldogs, who have struggled under first-year coach Ruben Nieves but upset Utah State in five games last night.
"Offense has been our weakness all season," said Nieves, who last brought a team to the Stan Sheriff Center in 2001, his final year coaching the Stanford men's team. "We need to find a way to score kills around their block and defense.
"What concerns us about Hawaii is that they've been top-notch competition and that they've been beating teams that we have lost to."
The Bulldogs have lost all three meetings with Top 25 teams this year while the Wahine are 2-5, with the five losses against teams currently ranked 1, 2 and 4. Fresno State made the same road trip as Hawaii last week, only in reverse, with the outcomes also reversed; the Bulldogs lost at New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, while the Wahine won both.
It's very much a transition year for Nieves, who saw two of the top players from last year's 15-13 team transfer: Christianna Reneau to Loyola Marymount and Kahuku's Tuli Peters to Brigham Young-Hawaii. Also gone after starting seven matches this season is Iolani graduate La'akea Campbell, a senior hitter who was dismissed from the team earlier this month.
The only player from Hawaii left on the roster is sophomore hitter Mounia Nihipali (Kamehameha), who leads the team in kill average (3.30 kpg) but hasn't played since a Sept. 14 loss at Pacific. Nihipali, who started five of the first seven matches, was not on the travel roster for today's trip to Honolulu, according to Nieves on Tuesday.
Nieves said his biggest challenge was getting players to buy into and adjust to a very different coaching style and training philosophy from what they were used to under former coach Lindy Vivas.
For Hawaii, the biggest challenge was to not look past the Bulldogs to Saturday's match against WAC co-leader Nevada. The Wolf Pack, winners of their last eight, took Hawaii to five twice last season only to fall both times.
"Even though we've never lost to Fresno State, they've always played us tough," Wahine senior libero Ashley Watanabe said. "None of the wins have been easy.
"We're still undefeated (in WAC) and we want to keep it going. We know how it feels to lose and we don't want it to happen again."
Four teams came into the week undefeated in conference play: Nevada and Utah State at 4-0, Hawaii 3-0 and San Jose State 2-0. At the most two will finish the week the same way with Utah State having lost last night and Nevada hosting San Jose State tonight before its trip here.
Wolf Pack coach Devin Scruggs said she had her team pack for its trip to Hawaii yesterday, "so that their focus would be on San Jose State," she said of tonight's match. "Any time you're going to Hawaii, you're going to think about it, but I've been trying to impress on this group that we can't overlook San Jose State.
"It's not hard for me not to look ahead. In all reality, San Jose is the more important of the two matches. We cannot lose that match. It would be very devastating."
After a disastrous 1-5 start, the Wolf Pack have reinvented themselves behind junior setter Ashley Miller, a transfer from Golden West College. Miller has replaced All-WAC setter Tristin Johnson, who went down with a strained MCL in Game 5 against then-No. 21 California on Sept. 16.
Behind Miller, Nevada rallied to win in five, jump-starting the eight-match winning streak. Johnson won't make the trip to Hawaii and is out for at least another week.
Like the Wahine, the Wolf Pack had some tough losses early. They fell in five to BYU to open the year; to UCLA in five, losing Game 5 16-14 after leading 14-9; and to Loyola Marymount when the Lions won Game 4 38-36.
Like Hawaii, Nevada was able to defeat New Mexico State in five. The Wolf Pack did it on their home court, getting 28 kills from All-WAC senior hitter Salaia Salave'a and 22 kills and six blocks from sophomore hitter Karly Sipherd.
"We've definitely faced pressure situations early and that has helped us against Cal and New Mexico State," Scruggs said. "I'm not going to make any predictions on the match with Hawaii. It seems like every time I've predicted something -- a win against Sac State, a loss at Idaho -- I've been wrong.
"I think going five with New Mexico State shows Hawaii has some vulnerability, but they've been vulnerable before. They've given us openings and we haven't taken advantage of it. And I think Hawaii is better than last year and it sounds like they're healthy.
"The only thing I'm going to predict is that it will be a great match (Saturday) and the we'll compete hard. Regardless of who comes out a winner, I guarantee it will be one of the most competitive matches in the conference all year."
Fresno State at Hawaii
Tomorrow: Fresno State (2-11, 1-3) at No. 11 Hawaii (9-6, 3-0), 7 p.m.
Saturday: Nevada (9-5, 4-0) at Hawaii, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center.
TV: Tomorrow's match, live, KFVE (Ch. 5). Saturday's match, live, pay-per-view, Oceanic Cable; rebroadcast, 1:30 p.m. Sunday, KFVE (Ch. 5).
Radio: Both matches live, KKEA (1420-AM).
Series: Hawaii leads Fresno State 35-0; leads Nevada 21-1.