Wahine look to improve seeding
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Hawaii is guaranteed a spot in next week's NCAA volleyball tournament. Now the Rainbow Wahine (24-5) look to improve their national seeding this week when hosting a hot Loyola Marymount team.
The Lions finished out the West Coast Conference with three straight wins and five in their last six. Saturday, LMU (16-11, 8-6 WCC) topped St. Mary's 30-26, 30-23, 27-30, 30-25, behind Emily Day's 21 kills and 17 kills and four aces from Christianna Reneau.
"They're a good team and they're in a strong conference," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said. "We're both coming off wins. The one that regroups the best will be successful."
No. 11 Hawaii is coming off an emotional five-set win at No. 13 New Mexico State, a victory that earned the Wahine their eighth WAC tournament title and the conference's automatic NCAA bid.
One victory this week will give Hawaii its 14th straight 25-win season. The Wahine will also celebrate senior night on Wednesday, the last regular-season home match for Juliana Sanders, Kari Gregory, Caroline Blood and Raeceen Woolford.
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The holiday season has arrived. Signs of it began sprouting up after Halloween with Christmas decorations on display nearly two months in advance.
Loyola Marymount at No. 11 Hawaii
When: Tomorrow and Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Where: Stan Sheriff Center
TV: KFVE (Ch. 5)
Signs of volleyball holiday season have emerged as well with the countdown to the NCAA tournament "Selection Sunday" at six. The calendar watch normally includes Thanksgiving week and -- since 1996 -- it has meant that Hawaii has spent the holiday on the mainland.
Not this year. With the Western Athletic Conference tournament pushed back a week and a gap in the schedule, the Rainbow Wahine will be home for the holiday. No. 11 Hawaii (24-5) hosts Loyola Marymount for a pair of matches with national seeding implications.
The Wahine's national RPI was at 19 as of their loss to Utah State on Nov. 11, dropping them to third in the West region behind UNLV (13) and Colorado State (16). Since then, Hawaii has won three straight, capping its eighth WAC tournament championship run with a hard-fought, five-set win at No. 13 New Mexico State.
Unranked Loyola Marymount, also in the West region, is at No. 50 in the NCAA's RPI. The Lions should move up as well following their two wins last week, a sweep of West Coast Conference leader Santa Clara and a 3-1 victory over St. Mary's.
Both Hawaii and LMU look to use this week's matches as a springboard into the NCAA tournament. It's the first meetings between the teams since 2005 when they split two matches and LMU became the first unranked team to beat the Wahine at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"We expect, as we always do when we come to Hawaii, to play against one of the best volleyball programs in the nation," Lions coach Steve Stratos said. "Thus, we have to be in a position where we will have to be at our best.
"When we have been successful this season, it has usually been our ability to adapt to our opponents and make it difficult for them to stay 'in system.' "
Hawaii was able to stay "in system" for most of the WAC tournament, but did ad libbed some during its 2-hour, 53-minute marathon against New Mexico State. For the first time this season all five of the Wahine starting attackers had double-digit kills, led by tournament MVP Jamie Houston's 22.
The Aggies were able to slow down Houston, particularly when Hawaii's only option was the high-outside set to the left and it was more off the net than Houston prefers. But New Mexico State admittedly had a problem with UH junior hitter Tara Hittle and her 13 kills, her most in 15 matches dating back to Oct. 15.
"When you look at the numbers statistically, (Amber) Kaufman's at .300, good but only 10 kills," Aggies coach Mike Jordan said. "I think Hittle probably hurt us the most, probably played better than she has against us. Hawaii really made us work defensively."
Hawaii's defense rose to the occasion Saturday, with 90 digs, the second-highest total of the season and most since the Wahine had 110 in another five-set win over the Aggies last month. The Wahine will need to maintain that level this week against the Lions, who have a multi-pronged attack in senior opposite Heather Hughes, senior hitter Christianna Reneau and junior hitter Emily Day.
Day had a match-high 21 kills Saturday against the Gaels in becoming the 11th Lions player to reach the 1,000-kill plateau.
LMU also features Whitney Leonard, who Stratos calls potentially the best libero they've ever had. She had 26 digs Saturday.
Also on the Lions roster is sophomore defensive specialist Tina Moger (Kauai '06) and former Punahou player Ashley Dutro. Dutro was on the Buffanblu's state title team of 2000, then transferred to California to finish high school; the setter played a season at UC Santa Barbara before transferring to LMU as a junior and was the starting setter last year.
"Ashley's had a difficult road," Stratos said. "She was injured warming up for the first match of the year. We played two-thirds of our season before she got cleared to play.
"This has been an injury-plagued season for us."
The Lions appear very healthy coming into this week.
"We're going to have our hands full," Shoji said. "They struggled early but are playing very well right now. Both of us are coming off big wins and want to keep the momentum going."
Note: Wednesday is senior night for Wahine middles Juliana Sanders, Kari Gregory and Caroline Blood, and defensive specialist Raeceen Woolford.