Warriors face UCSD on the road
Mike Wilton isn't counting his chickens before they hatch. But the Hawaii men's volleyball coach does know how many eggs he has left to keep the Warriors' season going past April 14.
With six matches remaining -- beginning with tomorrow's contest at UC San Diego -- it continues to look like No. 13 Hawaii needs to run the table. It's not out of the realm of possibility since the Warriors (7-13, 5-11 MPSF) finish out the regular season with the two teams below them in UCSD (5-17, 2-14) and Stanford (3-19, 2-14), and Long Beach State (11-11, 6-10), the team directly ahead of them in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings.
"I did take a look at everybody's schedules," Wilton said. "Not that ours is easy, but everyone else has relatively tough schedules left. Yes, we do need the top of the league to keep winning, but we need to do our part."
The Tritons are out of playoff-berth contention, but they are dangerous. UCSD split with USC -- as did Hawaii -- and outlasted Long Beach State in five.
"Any team can win on any given night, which makes for an exciting regular season," Triton coach Kevin Ring said. "Although we have wanted to perform better than we have, overall we have still played some pretty good volleyball this year."
Every volleyball coach in the league has said it this season.
"This is the toughest the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation has ever been."
The coaches also have agreed that, when it comes to being successful, they are more concerned about their side of the net than that of their opponents.
In UH's case for the next three weeks, the Warriors (7-13, 5-11) are not only concentrating on their play but also studying the results of the rest of the MPSF. Hawaii's goal is to keep winning while needing some help from the top echelon of the league in beating the Warriors' competition for a playoff berth.
"I think we're going to be successful on this trip," senior middle Dio Dante said after practice yesterday morning. "When I say successful, I don't mean we're going to underestimate them. We don't want to lose by not having the right mind-set.
"There are teams losing to teams I don't think they should lose to. Like BYU losing to Northridge (last week). It's hard to say what will happen on any night."
Although history is certainly on Hawaii's side this week against UCSD -- the Warriors own the series at 35-0 -- the Tritons are not the doormats of previous seasons.
UCSD (5-17, 2-14) has beaten Long Beach State, the only team to defeat No. 1 Pepperdine this season. The 49ers nearly did it again last week, but watched a 2-0 lead in games turn into a five-game loss.
What were once considered major upsets are now being called "unexpected but not surprising" given the MPSF's strength. The top three teams -- Pepperdine, UC Irvine and BYU -- have begun to distance themselves from the pack, but only 2 1/2 games separate fourth-place UCLA from eighth-place USC.
Long Beach is a game behind the Trojans and a game ahead of the Warriors.
But much could change over the final three weeks of the regular season, impacted by the 49ers' tough stretch run: two at BYU followed by Hawaii at home then road matches at UCI and UCLA.
"Of course, every week everyone one looks at the standings," Warriors freshman libero Ric Cervantes said. "But we need to take care of ourselves. UCSD has already proved they can win.
"At 5-11, we can't overlook anyone. We don't have that right."
The Tritons, despite a seven-match losing streak, are waiting.
"Obviously we need to pass well and side-out at a high rate," UCSD coach Kevin Ring said. "But I think our service game, in the end, will be a telling stat as to how we match up with Hawaii. We need to generate point-scoring opportunities off of our serves."
Neither UCSD nor Hawaii has a server ranked among the top 11 in MPSF-only statistics. Team-wise in the conference ace stats, Hawaii is ninth and UCSD last in 12th.
But, as Warriors opposite Lauri Hakala showed last week, on any given night, someone can get hot. Hakala had a combined 10 aces in the two matches against Lewis, including eight the first night, more than doubling his season total to 19.
Ring said there was no one focus in the preparation for the Warriors. It's all in the recognition and execution of the matchups between the two teams.
"We've spent a lot of time on offense and defense," he said. "Offensively we're trying to keep our sets to the pins (outsides) consistent and on pace. Our wing hitters need to take long approaches and challenge the blockers, but at the same time we can't just swing away into the meat of the block.
"In terms of blocking we've just worked a lot on our block moves and taking something away from the hitter."
Where the Tritons have stayed in matches with good defense, the Warriors block has been dominating.
Hawaii, with an MPSF-leading 3.68 bpg, has outblocked opponents 213-157.
One player who has made a difference for the Tritons this season is freshman hitter Will Ehrman (Punahou '06), who is second on the team in kills and aces and fourth in digs. Ring originally thought of Ehrman as a possible libero.
"He proved himself to be one of our stronger passers and has a big arm," Ring said. "Will has played a big role in the matches that we've won this year."