Familiar foes vie
for title Thursday
Pepperdine, Hawaii and BYU
return to the conference semis
for a spot in the final four
By Grace Wen
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Coaches in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation have said all season that there are no weak teams in the conference. It was surprisingly true this year as many of the traditional cellar dwellers smudged the definitive lines normally drawn between the top and bottom tiers of the MPSF in men's collegiate volleyball.
But a championship that seemed open for the taking at the beginning of the year is boiling down to another contest between the same schools. Pepperdine, Hawaii and Brigham Young were in the MPSF semifinals last year and they're back again this season.
The top-seeded Waves battle fifth-seeded UC Irvine on Thursday at 2 p.m. Hawaii time. Second-seeded BYU and third-seeded Hawaii meet for the fourth time in the postseason at 4:30 p.m. in the second semifinal.
All times Hawaii time
Who: No. 1 Pepperdine vs. No. 5 UC Irvine, 2 p.m.; No. 2 BYU vs. No. 3 Hawaii, 4:30 p.m.
TV: KFVE, live
Radio: 1420-AM, live
The Waves, Warriors and Cougars occupy the top three spots in the AVCA coaches poll but at least one team won't get to compete for a national championship next week at the Pyramid at Long Beach State. All three teams could be in contention for the at-large berth depending on whom advances to Saturday's championship.
The Anteaters could throw a wrench into the plans of Hawaii and BYU, who both think reaching the MPSF championship would be enough to get them into the final four should they not win the whole thing. If UCI upsets Pepperdine and wins the tournament, the at-large is anyone's guess. All of this makes this week's championship more compelling than next week's final four, which will feature the tournament champions from the Midwest, the East and the MPSF, and the at-large team.
The stakes are high for every team remaining in this tournament. Here's a closer look at the teams.
No. 1 Pepperdine (23-4)
The defending MPSF tournament champion is the favorite to win. The host Waves have been the top-ranked team in the country most of the season and they wear No. 1 well. Not even a late-season loss to Pacific could knock Pepperdine off its perch.
Despite losing four senior starters from the 2002 team that Hawaii defeated in the NCAA finals, Pepperdine was still the steadiest team in the MPSF with a 16-3 conference record. Do the Waves have an aura of invincibility about them? No, but they have an intimidating block anchored by 2002 AVCA Player of the Year Brad Keenan (2.01 blocks per game, 3.02 kills per game).
"If I've earned my money, hopefully we've improved in all areas," Waves coach Marv Dunphy said. "I don't think I've measured anything to where I can say we're definitely better at this or better at that. Hopefully, we're a little better at everything we do.
"Basically at this time of the year, either you're good enough or you're not. You can do all the voodoo and all the preparation and it just comes down to either you're good enough or you're not."
Pepperdine is 2-1 against UCI this season. The Anteaters won the Waves tournament in January before getting swept in the conference series.
No. 2 Hawaii (24-5)
The Warriors could be the first team to repeat as national champions since UCLA did it from 1995 to '96. To do so, Hawaii needs to seize control of the MPSF tournament and its destiny. The Warriors don't want to count on the at-large since there are too many what-if scenarios involved.
Seniors Costas Theocharidis and Tony Ching have been terrific in dismantling opposing teams' blocks as Hawaii's first and second attacking options. The Warriors have won a school record 14 straight and appear ready to claim their first MPSF crown. It is the only championship missing from the list of accomplishments of Hawaii's seniors.
No. 3 Brigham Young (20-6)
It has been a good first year for BYU coach Tom Peterson, who took over for Carl McGown. Peterson isn't new to the men's volleyball scene. He coached Penn State to the national title in 1994, the only time the championship wasn't won by an MPSF team.
BYU has similar losses to Hawaii, but the difference is that the Cougars' losses have usually come the second night after beating an opponent the first night. Peterson says his team is fueled on emotion, which explains its tendency to letdown after winning. The playoff atmosphere should work to the Cougars' advantage.
Hawaii and BYU split the series in Provo, Utah, this season.
No. 7 UC Irvine (20-10)
Based on seeding, it would appear that the fifth-seeded Anteaters are the only team that doesn't belong in the MPSF championship, but that is not the case. UC Irvine got its first postseason win in school history the hard way after it traveled to fourth-seeded Stanford, dropped Game 1 and took the next three games.
It has been a season of milestones, including the most victories (20) and most league wins (12) in school history for UCI. The Anteaters could add another if they reach their first MPSF championship.
If UCI coach John Speraw is anything like his mentor, UCLA coach Al Scates, then the first-year head coach has his team playing its best during playoff time. Speraw concedes that UCI peaked early in the season, opening with 10 straight wins and ascending to a No.1 ranking before the reality of being a target set in. The Anteaters hit a plateau before finishing the season strong and winning five of their last seven.
"Pepperdine is very good," Speraw said. "They always say that you have to have a couple of breaks go your way in order to win a national championship. The last time we played Pepperdine, we didn't really get those breaks and if we get them this time, we have a chance.
"What I'm most proud of is that we now have a higher expectation for our success. We're going to walk into that match expecting to win. ... Confidence can easily be a factor in a couple of points in a match and maybe more. Pepperdine has that confidence and we need to make sure we have that too. We're feeling very good about ourselves coming into this match."
Notes: Tickets for the MPSF championship went on sale yesterday at Pepperdine. They can be purchased by contacting the Pepperdine Athletics Ticket Office at 310-506-4935.
All-tournament tickets, good for all three matches, are $25 for adults and $15 for students. Individual day tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students.