RAINBOW WARRIOR VOLLEYBALL
Vanzant is UH's answer
"Entrenched" is not a word Mike Wilton has used often or lightly this season.
There is an air of permanency to it. Certainly a rarity when used in the context of his Hawaii men's volleyball lineup this season, particularly at left-side hitter.
The revolving door at times seems more like Russian Roulette. Midway through the season, the Warriors appear to have ended the merry-go-round.
The answer? Matt Vanzant.
Who: No. 8 Cal State Northridge (13-9, 7-6) at No. 14 Hawaii (3-13, 3-11)
When: Today and Tomorrow, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
Radio: Tomorrow 's game, KKEA, 1420-AM
TV: KFVE, Ch. 5
Series: Hawaii leads 37-12
Promotion: UH students wearing green shirts admitted free.
The 20-year-old freshman from Tucson, Ariz., has started eight matches, including the last three. His most impressive outing came last Saturday, with a career- and match-high 24 kills, hitting .364, in the 3-1 loss to No. 1 Pepperdine.
"He put up really good numbers against as good a defensive team as there is in the country," said Wilton, in his 15th year as Warriors coach. "He works hard and will keep getting better and better. He has a chance to be a real special player."
Not bad for someone who grew up playing baseball and considered volleyball a sport played by his sister and her friends. Not bad for someone who tried it as a high school sophomore and fell in love.
Mountain View High didn't add boys volleyball until Vanzant's sophomore year, after students petitioned to add the sport. His older sister, Jessica, talked him into going to tryouts.
"It was like, 'Are you serious?' " Vanzant said. "But I went and fell in love with it. Our coach was the basketball coach and pretty much threw us out there. My sister basically coached the team."
Jessica Vanzant Frederick finished her collegiate career last fall at Portland State with 1,075 kills. The 6-foot-2 outside hitter was a second-team All-Big Sky selection, named to the Big Sky all-tournament team and named the Vikings' co-offensive player of the year at the team banquet last month.
Although Matt Vanzant earned all-region and all-state honors, he was lightly recruited. He had narrowed his choices to Missouri Valley, a small NAIA school; junior colleges in California; and the University of Arizona, which has a high-level club team.
Hawaii came into the picture late -- so late that Vanzant never got in a recruiting trip.
"I packed my bags and just showed up," he said. "Fortunately, I liked it.
"My first year, everyone that had been recruited with me also redshirted. The hardest part was going from playing every minute every game to sitting and watching. But we stuck together."
The freshmen are the core of the Warriors' future: Matt Rawson, a starting middle blocker, and reserve hitters Steven Grgas and Ernie Vidinha.
"Matt's really improved a lot," said Vidinha, Vanzant's roommate. "He's gotten more mature in his playing. That he's doing so well with so little experience says a lot."
Vanzant realizes there is a lot more to learn. And more ways to get a kill than trying to go through the block by hitting as hard as possible.
He's taken tips from senior All-American Lauri Hakala, his sometime pepper partner, who is one of the smartest hitters in the country. Hakala had a combined 34 kills against the Waves last week, using a variety of line, tip, off-speed and tool shots.
Vanzant took notes, mixing up his shots as well, finishing with his career high Saturday.
"I really respect Lauri," Vanzant said. "He's always there to help whenever I need him. He's trying to get me to hit straight. My arm swing is horrible and he's helping me work on it."
The goal is to be consistent, in all phases of his game. It mirrors what Hawaii needs to do in order to turn around a season that has been very disappointing.
The Warriors are 3-13 overall, 3-11 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. They would have to win out -- 10 matches overall, eight MPSF -- to avoid their first losing season under Wilton, and the first since going 13-14 in 1992.
"We've had a lot of injuries, and that's been devastating for us to be in system," Vanzant said. "Hopefully, everyone will come together at the right time. I still believe that everything will work out, that we'll make the (MPSF) tournament and do some damage.
"We have the talent, the heart and the determination. We need to focus on being steady, to learn from what happens when we aren't, and to not repeat it."
Such as what happened last Saturday against Pepperdine when UH blew a 21-13 lead in Game 4, losing it 30-28.
"We got stuck for a little bit and we paid for it," Vanzant said. "We did a lot of good things in that match.
"Even though we lost, we have a ton of momentum going into these matches with (Cal State) Northridge. We know it's do-or-die time and hopefully everyone will step up."