Star-Bulletin Sports


UH can sit back
and let it all sink in

Warriors ended their up
and down season way, way up

By Grace Wen

This time the summer will be spent celebrating.

A year ago at this time, the Hawaii volleyball team finished a close second at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and wondered about what might have been.

Now the Warriors can go into their final exams with a clear mind and focus on the last challenge of the year -- passing their classes.

With its 3-1 win against Pepperdine in the NCAA championship match, the Warriors can revel in what they have accomplished this season. Hawaii brought home the first national championship banner in any men's sport and will proudly hoist it along side the four Wahine banners dangling in the Stan Sheriff Center.

The championship caps a season in which Hawaii battled itself for the most part. The Warriors opened the season with a loss to Loyola-Chicago, but rebounded the next night by slaughtering the Ramblers. The opening two matches set the tone for Hawaii.

"It was an up and down year," Hawaii coach Mike Wilton said. "There were too many times when this team underestimated opponents and paid bitter prices for that. There were at least four times that happened. We were up and down just because we had a lot of new guys out on the court. But they got better and better, and we saved the best for last."

The Warriors were usually even stronger after a loss. They proved as much in the NCAA championship match. A week after Pepperdine defeated Hawaii for the third time this season in the MPSF championship, the Warriors beat the Waves at their own game. They were steadier and more cohesive against a Waves team that had rolled to 29 victories this season. Despite being a smaller team physically, the 2002 Warriors beat opponents with a tenacious and scrambling defense, and a nearly impenetrable wall at the net. They only lost two matches in a row once (at Pepperdine in March) in compiling a 24-8 record.

"It's been up and down," senior Dejan Miladinovic said. "We had problems, but we managed to overcome them and triumph in the end. It's been a great season. Last season was a great season.

"We had a goal in mind, but I'm sure everybody had doubts. Coach was the only one who didn't have any doubts. Every time in his speech, he said 'you're the best team in the country'."

And one that should be good next season. Hawaii has a solid core returning with five starters and several key reserves back. Costas Theocharidis, Eyal Zimet and Tony Ching will anchor the offense as seniors. Theocharidis averaged 5.49 kills per game and led the team in serving with 37 aces. The first team All-American will spend the summer training with the Greek national team for a possible shot at making the 2004 Olympic team. He plans on returning to Hawaii in the fall for another go at a championship.

Ching, who may best exemplify the comeback theme of this year's team, battled through two injuries and a suspension to be the hitter Hawaii needed to win the championship.

Zimet, the Warriors' most consistent passer all season and an offensive threat at the end, will also be back.

Freshmen Delano Thomas and Jose Delgado saw extensive playing time this year, and will be in the mix again next season. A year of experience in the always-tough MPSF means neither will be nearly as wide-eyed in 2003.

"It's so unbelievable. I don't even know how to feel," Thomas said. "I'm still in shock. This is my first year and I'm so grateful to be on this team."

Freshman setter Daniel Rasay, a self-proclaimed relief pitcher, will be back to push two-year starter Kimo Tuyay. Rasay set Hawaii to a win in the biggest match of his career -- the national semifinal against Penn State. Though Tuyay was relieved during some of the season's final matches, the sophomore was steady, averaging 12.82 assists per game.

While the offense will be fine, the defense will definitely feel the loss of the two seniors.

It will be hard to replace 1.94 blocks per game, but Thomas said that he has learned much from Miladinovic, the owner of all of Hawaii's career blocking records. The Serbian graduated in the fall and is pursuing an MBA. He hasn't ruled out competing for his national team, though his next pursuit might be playing professionally in Europe.

Vernon Podlewski, the smallest Warrior on the court, and the one who took the most circuitous route to Manoa, leaves averaging 2.15 digs a game. His effort and all-out hustle on the court will be difficult to replace.

The biggest question of the offseason is whether the Warriors' coach will return. Brigham Young coach Carl McGown, Wilton's friend and former colleague, resigned at the end of the Cougars season.

Wilton worked most of this year without a contract and his current one expires in August, a few days before he reaches the 10-year mark at the university. Including the NCAA championship, Wilton is the winningest coach in program history and notched his 200th victory Saturday. He has guided Hawaii to three final fours in seven years.

"It seems apparent that someone else is interested," Wilton said. "I agreed to talk to them back in January because at the time, I had no contract. There are important things like feeding families and so forth, and so I will talk and I will listen."

And so will the rest of Hawaii.

Notes: The Warriors will be in a parade Thursday, commencing at 11:45 at the university and ending at Murphy's Bar & Grill, on the corner of Merchant Street and Nuuanu Avenue. An autograph session will follow at Murphy's. ... Gov. Ben Cayetano yesterday issued a proclamation declaring 2002 as "Rainbow Warriors Volleyball Year." He will host the team in a luncheon at Washington Place at 1 p.m. Friday. ... Final exams start next week.

UH Athletics

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