Volleyball coaches hit with preseason choices
As predicted, UH and NMSU are the top dogs at tourney time
Think Christmas decorations being out before Halloween was early?
Consider the jump the Western Athletic Conference coaches got on their Thanksgiving week tournament when ranking the order of finish back on July 12. As predicted, the WAC title race was between Hawaii and New Mexico State, with the preseason favorite Rainbow Wahine taking their 11th straight regular-season championship by a game over the Aggies.
Nevada and Idaho were expected to battle for third, and only a late-season skid by the Wolf Pack -- losers of their last three -- gave the Vandals third place while relegating Nevada to a tie for fourth with San Jose State. The Wolf Pack had the tiebreaker over the Spartans for the fourth seed, little consolation since Nos. 4 and 5 play each other.
But Hawaii's Dave Shoji and New Mexico State's Mike Jordan, the coaches of the top two seeds, aren't spearheading a mass application for Mensa. They agree that this year's preseason poll was easy to fill out, just as it's easy to say that this week's tournament is unpredictable.
"I don't think there's an easy match in the bracket," said Jordan, whose Aggies take on seventh seed Boise State on Wednesday. "Boise was tough at home when they played Hawaii (last Wednesday) and Idaho is playing as good as anyone. They gave us a tough match up there as well.
"There's no gimmes in the tournament. It's always hard to play and beat someone a third time."
Or even a second. Most anticipate that it will be No. 13 Hawaii and No. 20 New Mexico State -- which split during the regular season -- to be playing for the automatic NCAA bid come Friday's title match (CSTV, 5:30 p.m. Hawaii time).
"If the seeds hold true, it will happen," Shoji said. "But we have to play the games one at a time. We struggled with just about everybody this season and we're not looking past anyone, and that includes our first match.
"Our goal is to win (the tournament). We want to win it. But we obviously have some issues to work out. We've been inconsistent in our passing, hitting and blocking. But we have been able to survive some tough matches with different parts of our game being uneven. Looking back on the whole season, I think our record is indicative of having a resilient bunch of players who have been mentally tough."
Hawaii, after concluding the regular season Friday, has spent the past two days in Spokane, Wash., relaxing. The team was to fly to Reno today.
"We're more rested than we've been in a while," Shoji said. "What we need are two good practices Monday and Tuesday, and then I think we'll be ready."
Win or lose, the Wahine are lock for the NCAA tournament. Their hope is that they'll play at home in next week's first round.
But, as recent history has shown, neither record, ranking nor RPI has been enough for that to happen since 2003. In 2004, third-seeded Hawaii (28-0) was shipped off to Colorado State for the subregional; last year, seventh-seeded Hawaii (25-6) went to a very competitive regional at Texas.
"I believe we're a top-16 seed but as we know there's no guarantee that we'd be home," Shoji said. "I guess it's better if we don't anticipate anything."
Jordan knows better than most about that. Despite a 20-12 record and finishing tied for second in the WAC during the regular season last year, the Aggies were not selected for the NCAA tournament.
"I think we're both in," Jordan said of Hawaii and NMSU. "But I felt that way last year."
Unlike last season, when the WAC had three teams in the NCAA tournament, likely the only way that would happen this year is if someone other than Hawaii or New Mexico State wins the automatic bid. San Jose State has the best outside shot; the Spartans (18-11) are 8-3 in their last 11, with the losses coming to Hawaii and twice to NMSU.
Other than host Nevada (15-14), the rest of the conference teams are sub-.500 overall.
Notes: Hawaii's quarterfinal match Wednesday is against the winner of the play-in match that day between Fresno State and Louisiana Tech. The Wahine swept both the Bulldogs and Lady Techsters this season, winning all four matches in straight sets. ... New Mexico State (30-2) is just the second WAC school to reach the 30-win mark. Hawaii is the other: 35-3 in 1996; 32-3 in 1998; 31-2 in 2000; 34-2 in 2002; 36-2 in 2003; and 30-1 in 2004.
At Reno, Nev.; all times Hawaii time
(Seedings in parenthesis)
Fresno State (8) vs. Louisiana Tech (9), 7:30 a.m.
New Mexico State (2) vs. Boise State (7), 10 a.m.
Idaho (3) vs. Utah State (6), 12:30 p.m.
Nevada (4) vs. San Jose State (5), 3 p.m.
Hawaii (1) vs. Fresno State-Louisiana Tech winner, 5:30 p.m.
New Mexico State-Boise State winner vs. Idaho-Utah State winner, 3 p.m.
Nevada-San Jose State vs. Fresno State/Louisiana Tech-Hawaii winner, 5:30 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 5:30 p.m.