Wahine’s NCAA door prize: trip to Texas
No. 8 Hawaii must win two in the Lone Star state to make it to the regional at Penn State
Perhaps Ashley Watanabe knew something. Her travel pillow is a white star trimmed in blue, very similar to the lone star in the Texas state flag.
Watanabe used the pillow on yesterday's flight from Reno, and it's the one the senior libero will take when the No. 8 Hawaii women's volleyball team heads out tomorrow night for its NCAA Tournament first-round match in Austin, Texas.
For the second year in a row, the Rainbow Wahine are a top-eight seed. For the second year in a row, they are being shipped out to a tough regional.
Hawaii (25-6), seeded seventh overall in the 64-team field, opens tournament play against Texas State (17-14) in Friday's first match at Texas' Gregory Gym. The host Longhorns (23-4), who handed top-ranked Nebraska its first loss of the year Saturday, take on LSU (21-7) in the second match.
The winners meet in Saturday's second-round match, with the survivor advancing to the regional at Penn State. The Nittany Lions (29-2), seeded second overall, are also hosting first and second rounds, as are the other seeded teams in the region: 10th seed Missouri (22-4) and No. 15 seed Tennessee (21-8).
Hawaii is one of three Western Athletic Conference teams selected to the tournament, along with WAC runner-up Utah State (21-12) and fourth-place Nevada (18-12). A surprise to some was the omission of New Mexico State (20-12), the team that took Hawaii to five twice this year.
"Obviously, we're still in a state of shock," Aggie coach Mike Jordan said in a telephone call from Las Cruces, N.M.. "I'm really searching for answers. I don't understand how some teams were chosen ahead of us and I just want some answers.
"I'm not bitter but I am really upset. And sending Hawaii to Texas is insane. I feel bad for Hawaii. I just don't get it.
"We need to rethink how and why we're doing what we're doing. Otherwise people may never take our sport seriously."
Hawaii coach Dave Shoji has seen enough in his 31 seasons to not be surprised by the surprises. Given the snub last year when UH had the third-best RPI in the country, he expected to be back out on the road this week ... but not to Texas.
"We didn't catch a break," he said. "We had thought we'd go Mountain or West (region) but we're Central. It's a hardship on our players.
"I feel bad for New Mexico State, thought they were deserving and would get in ahead of Nevada. Obviously Nevada's win over Cal was huge with the committee and New Mexico State didn't have a quality win."
Hawaii has victories over five tournament-bound teams: Utah State, Nevada, 12th-seeded USC, 16th-seeded UCLA and Loyola Marymount. The Wahine have lost to the top three seeds: Nebraska (1), Penn State (2) twice and Washington (3) twice.
Hawaii watched the selection show yesterday at San Francisco International and had the long flight to Honolulu to digest the fact they would not play on the Stan Sheriff Center court again this year.
"It's something we were expecting," junior setter Kanoe Kamana'o said. "If we were able to host, it would have been a bonus. We just have to be ready to play.
"We know it will be tough. Texas just beat Nebraska, but we have to take care of Texas State first. And if we keep winning, then we'll play Penn State for a third time."
But that would mean that Hawaii had knocked off the Bobcats, the Southland Conference champions, and then the Longhorns, who are 10-0 at Gregory Gym.
The potential matchup against the Wahine wasn't a pleasant thought for Texas coach Jerritt Elliott, who briefly played for the UH men's team in 1990.
Elliott felt that after knocking off Nebraska on Saturday, his team would be among the top 16 seeds. Instead, his "reward" was seeing that Hawaii was coming to his gym.
"I've talked to a lot of coaches who are really scratching their heads over the brackets," he said in a telephone call from Austin. "I don't know what the committee is thinking. It makes no sense.
"I don't mind playing Hawaii and LSU, but the pairings don't equate to any common sense. I think when we have our coaches convention (at the final four in San Antonio next month) we have got to focus on the committee, what their experience is with volleyball. Perhaps we do like tennis and go to a computer ranking."
Elliott is on the committee which ranks teams in his region. Although he would not name the school, the No. 4 team in his region was not selected to the tournament.
Several other quality teams were left out, including Wichita State (28-3), which went through the Missouri Valley Conference undefeated at 18-0, but lost in the tournament final to Missouri State.
The 31 conference winners received automatic berths. The Big 12 had seven teams selected, with the Big Ten, Pac-10 and SEC getting six.
Four teams are making their inaugural appearance: SUNY-Binghamton, Virginia Commonwealth, Jacksonville State and Alabama-Tuscaloosa. Also making the tourney is Cornell, coached by former Wahine All-American Deitre Collins.
WAC member Utah State is in the sub-regional hosted by Utah and will face Loyola Marymount on Friday. Nevada has a first-round match at Stanford.
"At least we don't have to fly," Utah State coach Burt Fuller said. "And we're very comfortable in Utah's gym."
"We're very pleased to get in and where we're playing," Nevada coach Devin Scruggs said. "We almost beat Stanford last year and this is certainly much better than going to Nebraska, like we did last year.
"It's unfortunate that Hawaii isn't hosting. I don't know the reason, but when we went to Hawaii for the tournament in 1998, our tickets were about $1,400 apiece. I'm assuming cost is a factor."
Note: The selection committee members are representatives from Nevada, Boston College, Toledo, Alabama-Tuscaloosa, Tulane, Appalachian State, Eastern Washington, St. John's and Texas State-San Marcos. Six of those schools' volleyball programs have never qualified for the NCAA tournament.