Warriors hit the road to face Gauchos
No aloha for UCSB coach’s farewell tour
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First road trip. Major adventure.
Not only is this week's trek to UC Santa Barbara Nejc Zemljak's first experience with California freeways, it's also the first time on the U.S. mainland for the Hawaii volleyball team's freshman setter.
» Who: No. 13 Hawaii (3-4, 2-2) at UC Santa Barbara (2-6, 1-4)
» When: Tomorrow and Saturday, 5 p.m. Hawaii time
» TV: None
» Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
"I spent an hour at the Los Angeles airport last month on my way (to Hawaii)," said Zemljak, a Slovenian national. "The first year I came, I went through Asia."
Zemljak and the rest of the Warriors had a day to acclimate before taking on the Gauchos tomorrow (5 p.m. Hawaii time) in the first of two consecutive Mountain Pacific Sports Federation matches.
The teams have one thing in common: They both picked up their first conference wins last week. No. 13 Hawaii (3-4, 2-2 MPSF) topped No. 15 UC San Diego twice, while UCSB (2-6, 1-4) swept winless Pacific.
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This was not the aloha tour Ken Preston had hoped for, not after nearly 30 years as the UC Santa Barbara men's volleyball coach.
The disappointment is not about this season, although the Gauchos have struggled to a 2-6 record as they prepare to host No. 13 Hawaii tomorrow and Saturday. It's more about the state of collegiate men's volleyball.
"I thought the sport would be absolutely huge by this time in my career," said Preston, a UCSB graduate and the Gauchos' coach since 1979. "It not only has not grown, it has gotten smaller in Division I. My passion from the beginning was spurred by the hopes and dreams we all had of making men's volleyball in the States bigger. That we are in the same situation 30 years later is very disappointing.
"One of the reasons we all like coming to Hawaii to play -- besides the surf -- is the fact that it seems important in the islands. Television, big (newspaper) articles, good beat reporters and just the big-time feel it has."
Unless Hawaii ends up hosting UCSB in a Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoff match in April, Preston's final season will not include one last appearance in the Stan Sheriff Center. The closest he may come to seeing Hawaii is looking at the school name on the Warriors' uniforms.
Both teams are coming off their first Mountain Pacific Sports Federation victories, the Gauchos over winless Pacific, and the Warriors over UC San Diego twice last week. Both teams would like to continue to add to the win column as well as build momentum for the rest of the year.
"Surely those wins have helped build some confidence," said Warriors coach Mike Wilton, who graduated a few years ahead of Preston at Santa Barbara's San Marcos High. "But every team presents new challenges.
"They're young, but Kenny's got a couple of guys who are going to be a handful."
The key matchup will be at middle, where UCSB has four-year starter Theo Brunner at 6-foot-7 and 6-6 sophomore Sam Moisenco. The Warriors are expected to counter with 6-7 sophomore Steven Grgas and 6-5 freshman Keali'i Frank, who have started the past four matches. Six-foot-seven sophomore Matt Rawson is also in the mix.
"Hawaii's middles are all good and all big guys with good arm swings," Preston said. "The next thing would be to neutralize (UH senior hitter Jake) Schkud. He's having a good year.
"They seem to have good serving, so passing, as always, will be a key. Against UOP, we distributed the ball better. We will never be able to rely on one hitter, as we tried to do against Stanford."
In the 3-0 loss to the Cardinal last Friday, freshman hitter Jeff Menzel had a match-high 21 kills, the only Gaucho in double-figure kills.
While it's a homecoming of sorts for Schkud -- who redshirted as a freshman at UCSB -- it's a real one for Warriors sophomore libero Ric Cervantes, a graduate of Santa Barbara High.
Winning two on the first road trip of the season would also avenge last season's two losses to the Gauchos in Honolulu.
Preston said some of his top memories have come from matches against Hawaii. Three that stand out are:
» the 1989 win in Klum Gym on Allen Allen's senior night;
» the 1996 upset of the No. 1 Warriors in the MPSF semifinal;
» the 1988 conference tournament title win over UH that put the Gauchos into the final four for the only time in Preston's career.
"I don't know if I have a legacy," said Preston (506-364), "except for the fact that I ran a clean program, graduated a very high percentage of my athletes, persevered for a pretty darn long time, and had some very good teams."