RAINBOW WARRIORS VOLLEYBALL
JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Matt Bender was Hawaii's returning kill leader heading into the season, but an injury in January sent him to the bench.
Willing to bend
An injury changed the role of Hawaii's Matt Bender from a starter to a spark off the bench
It has all been about the journey.
How a self-described geeky computer nerd has become an impressive volleyball player and an inspirational leader. Even when not on the court.
John Matthew Bender has as many attributes as he does names. John. Matt. Bender. Johnny Matt. J. Matthew.
Who: No. 7 UCLA (21-12) at No. 2 Hawaii (23-4)
When: Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: Live, KFVE (Ch. 5)
Radio: Live, KKEA (1420-AM)
Series: UCLA leads 45-18
It reflects how he has managed to be all of those, everything to everyone, as he tries to lead the Hawaii volleyball team to the final four.
From the bench.
Bender was not just penciled in as a starter as the Warriors began developing their game plan for this season. The senior outside hitter was the Magic Marker signature written in indelible ink, the defining point on a potential final-four season, as the returning kill-leader (3.55 kpg, .293 percentage) having recorded 17 double-doubles in 26 matches as a junior.
Instead, a freakish play during practice in early January led to Bender being sidelined three practices into what was supposed to be his signature senior season.
It was OK. Because Bender believes everything happens for a reason.
"I remember landing on the ankle," he said of the Jan. 5 injury. "I laughed about it, the timing of it being my senior year.
"Through the pain I realized that it wasn't a coincidence for it to happen right then. There's a lesson in it that I haven't quite figured out. Humility, perseverance ... what
it's like to ride the pine when the team is doing so well without you, knowing you could have been playing. This was the year to do great things."
But perhaps his being sidelined has allowed the No. 2 Warriors to become the team they are. Who's to know if it would have been different?
SB FILE / MARCH 2005
Matt Bender was in Hawaii's program during its title run in 2002, but spent all of his time on the practice court.
Can anyone say that Hawaii would have won 19 straight without Bender in the starting lineup? That the Warriors would be hosting nemesis UCLA tomorrow night for the right to advance to next week's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinal at Irvine, Calif.?
Most would say no. Bender disagrees.
Hawaii is where it is because it is where it's supposed to be. Just like Bender is in his "fireman" role going into the quarterfinal with the Bruins.
Just like Bender was supposed to be in the islands.
It started with his mother, Debbie, wanting to transfer to UH back in 1971 from her New Jersey college. The family had been visiting here since 1968 but her parents felt it was too far from home.
Debbie Hecht got as close as Tucson and the University of Arizona. The rest is Bender's history.
"I don't think Matt could have landed in a better place," said Hecht, who moved to Kailua-Kona last summer. "It was kind of spooky that the UH coaches wanted him. I was very excited about it, but I knew I needed to step back and let Matthew make the decision.
"He was vacillating, asking me what he should do. All I told him was, 'You said you wanted to play Division I volleyball and you have the opportunity. If it doesn't work out after six months, you can come home.' "
Bender was homesick but bonded with another incoming freshman who equally missed home and his mother. Jose Delgado, from Puerto Rico, was even farther removed from his comfort zone.
"We walked into the gym for the first time together and we became brothers," Delgado said. "Yeah, he is a mama's boy like me, far from home, but we helped each other out.
"He's an awesome guy, really smart. He's my family. We've had amazing experiences, unbelievable moments, together."
But that first year's outcome was completely different. While Delgado celebrated being part of the 2002 NCAA championship team, Bender -- a redshirt -- was left out on the fringe.
"I was part of it and I wasn't," Bender said. "I was there, every day in practice, playing on the second team. But I didn't go (to Penn State) as a redshirt.
"I have wanted the total experience and this year is the opportunity for that. I can't wait for it to happen."
For Bender and Hawaii to keep alive the hopes of returning to Penn State -- site of the 2002 NCAA tournament -- the Warriors need to knock off a UCLA team which has won nine straight and has a history of defeating UH in crucial contests.
Bender might not see the court. He's had just two starts in 27 matches, both against UC San Diego two weeks ago when Delgado was out with a throat irritation.
And then again Bender might, especially if the Warriors begin to struggle, as they did at Cal State Northridge on Feb. 25 and Game 2 against Brigham Young last Saturday.
"You look at his numbers after he comes in and they aren't great," UH associate coach Tino Reyes said. "But something happens when he's out on the court. His demeanor helps the team settle down.
"We've been able to use him at three positions (opposite, right-side and left-side hitter) when someone has faltered. I don't think anyone else would have been able to do that for us."
"He's our spark plug," junior setter Brian Beckwith said. "He gives us the energy off the bench. He sparked our enthusiasm to come back and fight that game (against BYU) and did the same at Northridge.
"His role right now is set. He's real good coming off the bench. When we're down in the ditches, he's the one that's lifted us up and gets us out of the slump."
Bender could have easily pushed the coaches to put him back in the starting lineup. But when he had recovered from his ankle sprain, he told them he didn't want to mess up the chemistry that had the team winning.
"I never had any doubt that the team would do well without me," Bender said. "It took them all of three to four matches before they gelled together. And that says a lot about the depth of our team.
"And this team ... there's a feeling that is hard to put into words when you play with a bunch of guys who are team players. Even the governor (Linda Lingle) said it (at Monday's banquet) that you can tell, even on TV, that there's something special going on."
Bender was the Arizona state player of the year as a senior but his Canyon Del Oro High team lost in the state tournament semifinals.
"I told my coach that I would trade every personal award I ever got to have the state title," Bender said. "That's the feeling I have with this team and the feeling this team has. We really don't care who is doing well as long as we're winning. I've never seen a group of guys who have come together like this.
"It is true that it is amazing what can be done when no one cares who gets the credit. That's what our team is about this year and it's a rare thing to find in my generation."
Most would find Bender old-fashioned and an old soul. He is deeply spiritual, not ashamed to speak about his faith, and enjoys reading and discussing the Bible.
Bender is very comfortable with himself. And with being in Hawaii.
"In high school, I was really bent on being cool, and I failed miserably," he said. "When I came here, I knew I could be myself, a computer-nerdy kid who plays volleyball. No one looked down on me. And once I realized that, it made a huge difference."
This season likely will be Bender's last at high-level volleyball. Although there's been feelers out regarding playing in Europe, the computer science major, who tutors physics, would like to be making money for what he is doing for fun.
Like three of his other fellow seniors, Bender will graduate in a few weeks, although he doubts he'll go through the ceremony. And then the future is whatever he makes of it.
"In 10 years, I see him as being very rich and having a family," senior libero Alfred Reft said. "When we come back for the alumni game in 10 years, maybe we'll be playing or maybe we'll be on the sidelines laughing."
Bender knows how he'd like to return in 10 years.
"We won my first year," he said of 2002. "What would be symbolic of my graduation here would be to go full-circle with another title."