JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Jake Schkud is vying for one of Hawaii's starting spots.
Hawaii men’s volleyball team begins rebuilding process
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It's been a long six months since hearing the final whistle of the season. The Hawaii men's volleyball team saw its roller-coaster of a season -- and 10-match winning streak -- end with a disappointing five-game loss to eventual NCAA champion UC Irvine last April 21.
"At end of last year, we were as good as anyone in the country," Warrior coach Mike Wilton said. "And Irvine escaped (26-30, 27-30, 30-23, 30-22, 15-11) to go on to the national title."
Hawaii has begun the rebuilding process after losing All-Americans Lauri Hakala and Brian Beckwith, middle Dio Dante and hitter Eric Kalima. There are battles at every positions, especially at setter, where returning junior Sean Carney and redshirt freshman Nejc Zemljak are pushing each other.
The pair will share setting duties this week when Hawaii hosts British Columbia in four exhibition matches, at 4 and 7 p.m. both Friday and Saturday, at the Stan Sheriff Center.
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They come into the year without a lot of hype but a lot of hope.
» the All-Americans: outside hitter Lauri Hakala and setter Brian Beckwith;
» the all-league middle: Dio Dante;
» and the all-heart utility guy: Eric Kalima.
British Columbia at Hawaii
» When: 4 & 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday
» Where: Stan Sheriff Center
» Tickets: $3-$5
It leaves the Hawaii volleyball team a bit young but still very talented. Competition is fierce at every position, with even the returning starters needing to fight for playing time.
"In some ways it's good not to have all the expectations, the big-name players," said junior setter Sean Carney, who backed up Beckwith the past two seasons. "The strength of our team is the team itself. We're very close with a lot of good players who haven't had the opportunity to shine.
"Even though it's still early and we haven't practiced that much, I've noticed that we have good chemistry. We've seen that in the past two weeks. It excites me, the coaches and the rest of the players that we have that."
The Warriors' first shot at showing that outside of the practice gym comes Friday and Saturday when hosting perennial Canadian powerhouse British Columbia in exhibitions Friday and Saturday at the Stan Sheriff Center. Carney and redshirt freshman Nejc Zemljak will alternate as the setters, with one playing the 4 p.m. match, the other the 7 p.m. match Friday then swapping on Saturday.
About the only thing that's a given this week is how much middles Matt Rawson and Keali'i Frank will play. And, given the lack of depth of eligible middles currently, the two probably will be playing all four matches.
"It's going to be a little rough for the two of us," sophomore Rawson said, "but we'll be fine.
"The way we lost to Irvine last year ... we all know we should have won that one. It's given us a different perspective on what we need to do this year. It's a whole new season, a whole different team. There are no All-Americans, just a bunch of guys, a bunch of underdogs, who want to win."
UBC will provide a good test. The Thunderbirds (5-1) arrive fresh off a title-winning performance at their Thunderball Tournament last weekend.
UBC hung on for a 25-17, 25-16, 17-25, 22-25, 15-11 victory over Thompson Rivers in the championship match. Right-side hitter Andrew Bonner and left-side hitter Steve Gotch combined for 32 kills, while rookie middle Joe Cordonier was in on 12 of the team's 19.5 blocks.
"They have a lot of guys back from last year," Hawaii coach Mike Wilton said, "and they've already played some matches, which means they'll be a little farther along than we are right now.
"It's hard to say how we'll stack up against other teams. We haven't spent too much time putting together an offense, been working a lot on fundamentals. We've been practicing hard, making improvements in the gym. We'll know a lot more after this weekend."
Expect to see most of the 20-player roster on the court at some point. There's stiff competition at every spot, according to Wilton, especially on the outside.
Sophomore Steven Grgas and senior Jake Schkud are contending for the opposite spot vacated by Hakala. The critical left-side spots may be a revolving door early, with returnees Jim Clar and Matt Vanzant in the mix with Matias Brizuela.
At libero, returnee Ric Cervantes is in a battle with Cory Enriques. Libero Mikey China is among several Warriors who won't be eligible until spring and won't play this week or in the four exhibitions against Pepperdine on Nov. 5 and 6.
"There's a lot less pressure on us right now, no one knows who we are," Rawson said. "We all get a chance to prove ourselves."
"Obviously we have a bunch of new guys and we're somewhat young," added Schkud. "But all these guys can play volleyball."