Hawaii's volleyball ties can be found as far away as Tennessee State University
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When it comes to volleyball, there seemingly is always a Hawaii connection.
Tenn. State (20-13) vs. Hawaii (26-5)
When: Tomorrow, 11 a.m. Hawaii time.
Where: Louisville, Ky.
Radio: KKEA 1420-AM
Even 4,300 miles away.
Tomorrow's first-round NCAA match in Louisville, Ky., is no exception. On the roster for Tennessee State -- the Rainbow Wahine's opponent -- are two freshman outside hitters from the Big Island and a niece of a former Wahine: Warriors Makena Naho'oikaika and Precious Salazar, and Candace Saleaumua, whose aunt is ex-UH player Carolyn Taeatafa.
"They all were overwhelmed with joy, anticipation and disbelief," TSU coach Kathy Roulhac said of the players with Hawaii connections. "For some reason, they never thought it would be possible for us to be playing the University of Hawaii. They stated to me, 'We are ready!'"
Naho'oikaika and Salazar were All-Big Island Interscholastic Federation selections at Kamehameha-Hawaii.
Naho'oikaika is the daughter of the late Alofa Tagataese, one of the most decorated players in the history of the Hawaii-Hilo volleyball program. Naho'oikaika played in 32 of the Tigers' 33 matches, averaging 0.75 kills and 1.40 digs, with 36 blocks and eight aces.
Salazar has played sparingly in 21 matches, with six kills and 59 digs.
Taeatafa -- whose niece Saleaumua, a junior setter, is a two-time JUCO All-American -- was the 1988 Big West Freshman of the Year.
Saleaumua is also the younger sister of former Nebraska All-American Jennifer, who originally committed to Hawaii before playing for the Huskers.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. » The NCAA volleyball sub-regional field at the Kentucky International Convention Center looks like something that belongs up the road at storied Churchill Downs.
It's a one-horse race.
Hawaii IS the tradition here, from its four national championships to its 26 NCAA appearances to its coach, Dave Shoji, only the second to win more than 900 matches.
Tennessee State, Hawaii's opponent in tomorrow's NCAA tournament first round, has no postseason tradition. The Tigers (22-10) are making their first NCAA appearance after winning their inaugural Ohio Valley Conference championship.
In tomorrow's other semifinal, Sun Belt champion Middle Tennessee State (33-2) is in the tournament for the second straight year. And, for the second straight year, the Blue Raiders meet Big East runner-up Louisville (22-7) in the first round.
Tennessee State is awed ... but not overwhelmed.
"It's a major accomplishment for the university, my players as well as for me professionally," Tigers coach Kathy Roulhac said. "The campus has a face-lift. Spirits are high, smiles are contagious and the sun is out.
"We know Hawaii is a good team that has a very good coach. They have the experience of being in the tourney on their side. I would say I know as much about Hawaii as they know about TSU. We're approaching this match as we approach all matches -- with faith."
Roulhac has placed her faith in youth, with seven of her 10 players in their first year of Division I volleyball. Four are freshmen, including Kamehameha-Hawaii products Makena Naho'oikaika, who's played in nearly every match, and Precious Salazar, injured early in the season.
"Makena has played three positions for the team this season," Roulhac said. "She has progressed tremendously and has adjusted well to the environment as well as my coaching style. Precious hasn't really had an opportunity to regain the rhythm needed to play on this level."
Also making the jump to D-I this year is junior setter Candace Saleaumua, a two-time JUCO All-American. She is the younger sister of former Nebraska All-American Jennifer, and the niece of former Wahine player Carolyn Taeatafa.
"Candace has been the leading force and the difference-maker on this team," Roulhac said. "If she were taller (than 5-foot-8) I think that she would be at Nebraska or at another team of that level. But I'm glad she is a Tiger. She is an amazing athlete."
Saleaumua is averaging 10.45 assists per game. Leading TSU is senior hitter Kelly Davis (3.03 kpg), the school's all-time kill leader, and senior middle Endia Oliver (1.86 bpg), one of the top blockers in the country.
While most expect that it will be Hawaii and Louisville in Saturday's second round, Middle Tennessee coach Matt Peck knows that the favorite doesn't always win. His Blue Raiders upset Louisville in last year's first round.
"Although we are focusing on our match with Louisville, we are also familiarizing ourselves with the Wahine," Peck said. "They are one of the storied programs in intercollegiate volleyball, so I have seen them numerous times on television and in person.
"And (Wahine junior) Jamie Houston prepped about an hour and a half away from Murfreesboro (home to MTSU), so I'm VERY familiar with her."
And the Wahine are very familiar with the host team, Louisville, having defeated the Cardinals in a tough four-game match back on Sept. 2 in Honolulu. Making things interesting for Louisville is that this will be the first time they've played in their hometown since Nov. 4 ... but it will not be a home match. Louisville normally plays in Cardinal Arena (840); this week's matches are at the larger KICC (12,500 capacity).
"We are very concerned about Middle Tennessee. They caught us last year and we really can't look past them now," Louisville coach Leonid Yelin said. "We are always proud to compete with Hawaii. It is productive to play against teams with rich tradition and great coaching."
The Cardinals went 0-3 at the Hawaiian Airlines Classic, then lost to New Mexico State before going on a 17-match winning streak. They've gone 2-3 in their last five, all on the road, and were swept by St. John's in the Big East tournament championship.