Hawaii faces
crunch time
in Nebraska

The Rainbow Wahine continue
their quest for a trip to the
final 4 tomorrow vs. UNC

UH puts 3 on All-West team

By Grace Wen

Consider the regular season and last weekend mere formalities. Three months of volleyball hinge on one weekend in Nebraska. It is where Hawaii's dreams of a fifth national title, of matching the men, who won in the spring, can take the next big step.

It is not an ideal place for anybody but the Cornhuskers.

UH volleyball

What: Central regional
Who: No. 2 Hawaii (32-1), No. 4 Nebraska (30-1), No. 11 North Carolina (32-3), No. 23 Miami (27-5)
When: Tomorrow -- Hawaii vs. North Carolina, 1 p.m. Hawaii time, Nebraska vs. Miami, 30 minutes after the first match
Radio: Live, 1420-AM (UH-UNC)

The venue is good, but the hosts have been nearly invincible in Nebraska Coliseum. The third-seeded Huskers have won 62 straight at home, a streak that dates back to 1999. More troublesome for sixth-seeded Hawaii is that Nebraska has gone to the final four eight of the 11 times it hosted a regional.

No one expects an easy route to the Big Easy. But unlike the three other regionals, the Central has forced together an odd assortment of teams. No. 2 Hawaii and No. 11 North Carolina get the Central regional going tomorrow at 1 p.m. Hawaii time. No. 4 Nebraska and No. 23 Miami follow at 3 p.m. The winners meet Saturday at 3 p.m. in the final.

From the beginning of the season, New Orleans, site of the final four, has been on Hawaii's radar. It's what the Rainbow Wahine have talked about while blowing by opponents during the regular season. But they might fall short in a stacked regional that none of the parties believe is the regional the seedings indicate.

"I don't buy that this is a 3-6 matchup with Florida being the five and Northern Iowa being the four," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said.

Nebraska coach John Cook thinks along similar lines. Cook said earlier this week that should Hawaii and Nebraska make it to Saturday, the regional final would be more about a shot at winning the national championship than it is about getting to the final four.

"A lot of questions ought to be asked why Nebraska and Hawaii are playing before the final four," Cook said. "If you look at their records and where they're ranked in the top 25, this is the only regional where two top five teams are playing each other."

Hawaii isn't thrilled either, not that it plans on lodging any complaints.

"We have the hardest second half. Our road to the final four is maybe the most difficult road that anyone has," junior Kim Willoughby said. "We didn't get the gimme teams in the first and second rounds, where it's guaranteed you're going to win. A lot of people got a lot of freebies. But the main thing is you can't worry about what Nebraska has or what North Carolina has. We have to play Hawaii volleyball."

Hard isn't necessarily a bad thing. In 1995, Hawaii was supposed to meet little resistance on the way to the final four. And for two games in the regional final, the Rainbow Wahine didn't. But Michigan State destroyed a perfect season by staging a huge comeback and handing Hawaii its only loss of the season. An easy path didn't help in 1999 either, when Texas A&M upset the Wahine in the regional semifinal and eliminated them from the NCAA championship that Hawaii was hosting.

Hawaii vs. Nebraska has been an interesting series the last two years. The teams don't play often enough for a rivalry, but the matches in recent years have had something on the line. The Huskers eliminated the Rainbow Wahine from the NCAA championships two years ago, the only time Hawaii reached the final four but not the title match. Nebraska also swept Hawaii at the NACWAA Classic last fall.

Cook expects another hard-fought match if Nebraska and Hawaii meet in the regional final.

"It's two great programs that when they go at it, it's a great match," Cook said. "It's like any sport where you have two tradition-rich programs. It's just going to be a great volleyball match when they go at it."

Sandwiched in the middle of the regional are sweet-16 rookies Miami and North Carolina. The hype and the focus of this week is not on the Tar Heels or Hurricanes. UNC coach Joe Sagula hopes his team doesn't get caught up in Hawaii's history.

"I hope it'll be a good match. Obviously, you play a program like Hawaii that sometimes you feel like you're not just playing the six people on the court," Sagula said. "You're playing the history and the tradition of the program. They come from one of the most successful programs in college volleyball. They have that aura about them, so I hope for our sake it'll just be six on six on the court, that we can look past the aura of them."

Nebraska playing Miami sounds more like a football game than a volleyball match. Unlike the 'Canes' No. 1 football team, there is no history of success. Women's volleyball has been rebuilt from scratch. Second-year coach Nicole Lantagne Welch resurrected a program that was dropped in 1980, the year of the only meeting between Hawaii and Miami. The program was gone for 19 years before Welch brought it back.

In 2001, Miami finished 17-7. This year, Miami finished second to 16th-seeded Notre Dame in the Big East and earned an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, the first ever postseason for the program. The Hurricanes stormed through the first and second rounds at Wisconsin and left the 10th-seeded and then-No. 15 Badgers in its path. This is probably where the Cinderella season ends.

The Huskers have four seniors who won it all as sophomores and would like to leave with another title.

"This group has been waiting for this part of the season," Cook said. "They are experienced and they've done everything possible, pretty much. They went three years without losing a conference match. They're energized by the NCAA tournament to play the big matches. They're playing with the most passion I've seen all year. We'll need it. We're not guaranteed to play Hawaii. We have to beat Miami, and Hawaii has to win, too."


Hawaii places 3
on All-West team

Hawaii volleyball players Kim Willoughby, Lily Kahumoku and Lauren Duggins were chosen to the All-West Region team yesterday.

Willoughby, a junior outside hitter who is also the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, is in the top 10 nationally in kills per game (6.25). She was an All-Region and All-America player last year.

Kahumoku, another junior outside hitter, ranks in the top 20 in kills per game (5.29). She made the All-Region and All-America teams in 2000.

Duggins, a junior middle blocker, is on the All-Region team for the first time. She ranks in the top 25 in blocks per game (1.41) and hitting percentage (.405).

The three players are now eligible to be considered for the All-America team.

Star-Bulletin staff

UH Athletics

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