Hawaii hopes to keep playing
IRVINE, Calif. » It's pow and pau tonight at Crawford Gym.
As at two other MPSF arenas, one team's season will end -- Hawaii or host UC Irvine.
The only certainty is the uncertainty of which three men's volleyball teams will be heading to top-ranked Pepperdine for Thursday's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation semifinals. Although the higher-seeded hosts -- No. 2 BYU, No. 3 UC Irvine and No. 4 UC Santa Barbara --have the advantage of playing at home, in this season of surprises it would be surprising if there isn't at least one upset.
Throw out the win-loss records because it's a new season for everyone. And this is the season that counts.
More than a month ago, UCI coach John Speraw figured his Anteaters would be seeing Hawaii tomorrow ... this before the Warriors started their 10-match winning streak.
"Our coaches had some fun, predicting how it would play out," Speraw said. "My prognostication came true. I had a hunch we'd be third. ...
"I'm not surprised by Hawaii's turnaround. I thought they'd be coming in at sixth. Yes, I agree the schedule did favor them at the end, but they still had to make it happen. Long Beach (State) didn't make the playoffs, but they were a tough team and Hawaii had to beat them twice at Long Beach. And I knew Stanford, with Kawika Shoji in his first homecoming, was not going to be easy. Hawaii made it happen."
A lot has happened in the 99 days since Speraw and the Anteaters first saw the Warriors Jan. 12. Certainly, it was a lifetime ago for Hawaii, the metamorphosis likened to a rise from the primordial ooze to walking man.
"We were still trying to figure things out," Warrior coach Mike Wilton said of the season-opening matches at UCI. "We had lots of growth to do. Compared to Irvine, who had nearly all their starters back, we obviously had more to improve on.
"I think we've become a very nice volleyball team. From the beginning, I've had faith in these boys, through thick and thin. I knew it would take some time before we started playing good volleyball. And it's a tribute to the players. They were patient, they didn't point fingers, weren't upset. They weren't happy, but it was, 'OK, we'll feel bad until tomorrow. Who's next?'"
For the Warriors (13-13), it will be the Anteaters (24-5), who began the year ranked No. 1. UCI is big, talented, balanced and hungry. And they're home, where they are 12-2 overall, 4-1 at Crawford.
The Anteaters will have two 2006 first-team All-Americans on the court tonight -- hitter Jayson Jablonsky (last year's national player of the year) and libero Brent Asuka (Iolani '05). UCI also has All-MPSF first-team senior middle David Smith; senior opposite Matt Webber, second-team pick; and junior middle Aaron Harrell, who made the third team.
"They're very good, have weapons at every position," Wilton said. "They run the middle really well and have really good quick hitters.
"Obviously, we're going to have to score when they serve us and score when we serve them. I think it will be a lot of fun in an exciting atmosphere."
It should also be sold out. There were fewer than 300 tickets remaining Thursday night for Crawford, which seats 1,400.
Hawaii was at home at this time last year, the No. 2 seed hosting play-in winner UCLA. The Warriors were upset by the Bruins, who went on to win their 19th NCAA title with their 14th straight victory.
The Warriors, who would need 15 in a row to win the championship, are thinking no further ahead than tomorrow ... although they do think back to January and being swept twice at UCI.
"They were No. 1 and ready," said UH senior middle Dio Dante, who finished as the MPSF regular-season block leader (2.06 bpg). "We were on our first road trip, we were sick. I was just coming off an injury. It's definitely a different team now.
"Sure, we haven't lost in a while, but that doesn't make us cocky. We're expecting to play a tough match, and we've got to bring our 'A' game. It's playoff time."
And that makes everyone dangerous.
"Every team has its strengths and weaknesses," Speraw said. "We're pretty good all the way around. Maybe our serve is the biggest question.
"Hawaii's block is pretty big, has put up big numbers. Dio (Dante) and (freshman Matt) Rawson had been very good in the middle. We'll have to hit smart, be able to convert when out of system, cover and keep the ball off the ground."