[ WAHINE VOLLEYBALL ]
Wahine step into
battle for arena
Andrea Bocelli ... Elton John ... Hawaii volleyball?
Those were the triple-headliners this week as Fresno State opened its $100-million-plus Save Mart Center.
Friday night, it was baroque. Last night, it was Benny and the Jets.
Today, the Bulldogs are hoping for their own box-office smash when hosting the No. 2-ranked Rainbow Wahine. Fresno State is looking to set a volleyball attendance record in the first athletic event to be held in the new arena.
Last season, the school turned away fans from the standing-room-only crowd of 1,400 at North Gym. In that match, the Bulldogs took the Wahine to five before losing, the only time during the regular Western Athletic Conference season that Hawaii dropped a game.
"I think we can get 5,000," said Fresno State coach and Punahou School graduate Lindy Vivas. "It's big (16,116 capacity) and beautiful and very fan-friendly. It's a fun atmosphere, very similar to walking out onto the court at the Stan Sheriff Center.
"There's a lot of good reasons for fans to come. It will be a good match. Hawaii's No. 2. And people want to see (UH senior) Kim Willoughby."
Willoughby, who leads the country in kill average (6.57 kpg), and the rest of the Wahine practiced at North Gym yesterday and were to see the Save Mart sport court for the first time this morning. Hawaii (25-1, 11-0) can clinch its eighth consecutive conference title with a win over Fresno State (19-5, 9-2).
"We've had two good practices," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said yesterday. "I think we'll be ready to play. And I think Fresno will play better than when they played us at home in Hawaii. They've got a lot to play for."
The Bulldogs are battling Eastern Division leader SMU (20-6, 10-2) for the second seed in this month's WAC tournament. They are also trying to prove that women's volleyball belongs in the new facility on a permanent basis.
"It's a little controversial right now and Lindy is not happy," said Shoji.
Vivas, in her 13th year with the program, was recently told that her team will not be playing in the Save Mart on a regular basis. It's not what she had been telling recruits -- she has verbal commitments for all three of next year's scholarships -- and she's feeling betrayed.
"Bottom line: How do you exclude a program of kids out of the biggest and best thing that's happened to Fresno State athletics?" Vivas told the Fresno Bee this week. "How do we justify that? How do we sleep at night?"
The Save Mart Center Web site touts the arena as " the home of men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball." Athletic director Scott Johnson doesn't agree, citing financial costs to play in the arena and poor volleyball attendance.
The Bulldogs have averaged between 451 and 996 the past 10 years. This year, they're averaging 659, around 50th nationally out of 312 Division I schools; conversely, Hawaii continues to lead the country at 7,214.
Johnson estimates that it will cost $5,000 for a single match at the Save Mart as opposed to $800 at North Gym. Vivas points out that a paid crowd of 1,000 at $5 per person would cover the expenses.
Vivas said she's not opposed to playing in a smaller facility, as long as it's a quality one. She considers 50-year-old North Gym the WAC's worst volleyball arena.
"When you bring high school kids in for recruiting, you can't show them a facility that's worse than their high school," she told the Fresno Bee.
Vivas and her players feel they deserve to play in the Save Mart. The Bulldogs are 42-12 the past two seasons, and likely will get a fourth NCAA tournament bid.
Last season, the Bulldog women's basketball program saw a dramatic turnaround under new coach Stacy Johnson-Klein, going from 9-20 to 21-13. The attendance average (tickets issued) went from 561 to 1,462.
Nearly 4,000 season tickets for women's basketball season have been sold this year, helped by a $50 season-ticket package offered to season-ticket holders for men's basketball.
One other problem in scheduling volleyball events is that the athletic department does not own the building. Operating expenses are paid to SMG, a Philadelphia-based company that runs the facility for California State University, Fresno Association.
Much like scheduling at the Blaisdell Arena, it will be done on a first-come, first-served basis. John Kriebs, the Bulldogs' assistant athletic director who also serves as volleyball supervisor, said he could probably schedule the 2004 volleyball season there but the athletic director has the final say.
"Every Tier 1 sport (women's volleyball and basketball are two of five) has a first-class facility to play in, and we're being kept out of it," said Vivas. "How can they expect our players to buy into this team concept, this family concept, when they know they're being singled out to not enjoy the benefits of all their peers?
"I feel there's a double standard, and it's not fair. It's horrible."
Vivas joked in a telephone interview that one of the ways her team would beat the Wahine was to lock them out of the arena today. Ironically, her team may be in the same predicament next season.
WAC women's volleyball
Who: No. 2 Hawaii (25-1, 11-0) at Fresno State (19-5, 9-2)
When: Today, 10 a.m. (Hawaii time)
Radio: Live, KKEA (1420-AM)
Series: Hawaii leads 31-0
Last Thursday: The Wahine dropped their first game in conference play this season at Nevada before dropping the Wolf Pack. The Bulldogs, behind Kahuku High School product Tuli Peters (11 kills, 13 digs), defeated San Jose State in four, using a season-high 22 blocks.