FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Junior Tara Hittle is third in kills for the Rainbow Wahine with 116 in 12 matches.
New Mexico State ready for Wahine
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Hawaii has its "White Out" nights, where fans are asked to wear white shirts to games.
Today, New Mexico State is going for "No Green to be Seen." When the No. 25 Aggies host No. 13 Hawaii in a battle of the WAC unbeatens at the Pan American Center, NMSU volleyball fans are being encouraged to wear only crimson and white, the school colors.
The Aggies are also hoping to break their home volleyball attendance record of 7,115, set in 2005 when the Rainbow Wahine last visited the PAC. Last season, New Mexico State snapped Hawaii's Western Athletic Conference winning streak at 114 with a 3-2 victory in front of 2,800 at the Las Cruces High gym.
"We really love playing in front of our home crowd and this is a chance for everyone to be part of something big," Aggie coach Mike Jordan said. "We're ready for this match and the team is excited to play Hawaii in front of our home crowd."
New Mexico State (11-2, 3-0) is coming off a 3-1 victory over visiting Utah State on Thursday, a match watched by 1,133. The Aggies rank 16th nationally in average home attendance at 1,708.
Hawaii (9-3, 3-0) leads the country in attendance for the 13th consecutive year. The Wahine, averaging 6,426, also have six of the top 10 single-match attendance marks this season; the top four were matches hosted by No. 1 Nebraska at the Qwest Center in Omaha.
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The primary goal when hitting the road is to make sure the road doesn't hit back.
And it has nothing to do with lost luggage, flight delays or road construction.
For No. 13 Hawaii, it's about taking care of business on what is considered a difficult business trip, one with three matches in five days in three different time zones.
The Rainbow Wahine volleyball team (9-3, 3-0) are a third of the way through their first mainland trip of the season, having picked up a tougher-than-expected victory at Louisiana Tech on Thursday. Now they put a six-match winning streak on the line against expected-to-be-very-tough New Mexico State today (3 p.m. Hawaii time).
Beating New Mexico State has become as hard as getting to New Mexico State (fly to El Paso, Texas, then drive 35 miles across the state border -- often through duststorms -- down I-10 to Las Cruces). The No. 25-ranked Aggies (11-2, 3-0) are legitimate contenders in the Western Athletic Conference, last year doing something that no conference team had been able to do in 114 matches over seven years and 361 days -- defeat the Wahine.
"It's a challenge. We're out of our comfort zone," Hawaii freshman libero Elizabeth Ka'aihue said before leaving this week. "We have to make sure we bring our 'A' game."
That's 'A' as in 'Aggies.' New Mexico State is waiting, hoping to set a volleyball attendance record against the Wahine. The mark is 7,115, set vs. the Rainbow Wahine in 2005.
"I think it will be our best crowd of the season," said Aggies coach Mike Jordan, averaging close to 1,700 at home. "Anything over 7,000 and I'd be very happy. We're excited about seeing Hawaii. I think it will be a very good match.
"I think that Dave (Hawaii coach Shoji) and I feel the same way about our teams. We both have a chance to be very good, but we're not as good as last year. We're both going through growing stages with new setters and new players."
Shoji said that playing in the Pan American Center was preferable to Las Cruces High, site of last year's five-game loss, or the intramural gym at Louisiana Tech, site of Thursday's win.
Shoji hopes the upgrade in facility will translate to an upgrade in how his team performs.
"It's a recurring theme with us," he said. "We need to pass and we need to play defense. Sometimes it's on and sometimes it's off."
Hawaii needs to be on today when facing New Mexico State, which leads the WAC in hitting percentage (.280), kills (17.05 kpg) and assists (15.88 apg). The Aggies' defense is anchored by junior Krystal Torres, whom Shoji considers the best libero in the WAC (5.26 dpg).
"They've got the same middles from last year and they're as good, if not better, than last year," Shoji said of senior Kim Oguh and junior Amber Simpson. "And I think they're much better on the left."
The Aggies are running a 6-2, utilizing both of their new setters, freshman Brynja Rodgers and junior transfer Alyssa Gintant. They also picked up a dynamic left-side hitter in junior Lindsey Yon, a transfer from Texas A&M, averaging 4.68 kpg.
Yon was hit hard in the face in Thursday's win over Utah State, which affected her during the match, according to Jordan. She had 12 kills but hit negative .047.
"It rattled her cage pretty good and she was in a fog for a while," Jordan said. "We expect she'll play against Hawaii. She's added a lot to our team."
Jordan said he liked what the Wahine had done in revamping their lineup, with the moves of sophomore Aneli Cubi-Otineru to the left, junior Tara Hittle to the right and sophomore Amber Kaufman now starting in the middle.
"I love Hawaii's balance," he said. "They're physical everywhere. If they ball-handle well, they're very potent."
And if the Wahine don't, they've shown they are very average.
Hawaii comes in on a six-match winning streak, dating back to the Sept. 3 sweep by No. 5 UCLA. New Mexico State has won its last four since being swept at No. 1 Nebraska on Sept. 8.