HPU favored in PacWest

Most coaches prefer to be the hunter rather than the hunted at the start of the season. Hawaii Pacific volleyball coach Tita Ahuna is comfortable with either role.

Ahuna's Lady Sea Warriors were picked to win the PacWest Conference in a close vote. Twelfth-ranked HPU (48 points) received four of five first-place votes to edge No. 18 Brigham Young-Hawaii (44 points). Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own team. Western New Mexico (32 points), Chaminade (28 points), Hawaii-Hilo (16 points) and Montana State-Billings (12 points) complete the balloting.

Starting the season with the rest of the conference gunning for them is a position Ahuna is grateful to be in. It's added motivation for a team looking to improve from last year's 17-8 season that ended in the Pacific Regional.

HPU finds out how good it is this weekend in the Hawaiian Style Classic. The Sea Warriors are co-hosting the tournament with UH-Hilo.

"I think BYU could have been No. 1 (in the conference)," Ahuna said. "We got the respect, but it still doesn't matter where you are ranked in the beginning. It matters where you are ranked at the end. I appreciate the respect that we got, but it's difficult to be No. 1.

"It's a lot of pressure but nothing I or the ladies can't handle. We can handle pressure."

Ahuna has good reason to be confident. The Sea Warriors return six starters and have the luxury of having an offensive weapon at every position.

Outside hitter Flavia Brakling was selected preseason All-PacWest. The 6-foot junior led the team offensively and defensively (4.17 kills per game and 2.43 digs per game) last year. Ahuna is counting on Brakling to assume more responsibilities this season and provide more leadership.

Junior setter Vera Oliveira will have other familiar targets in middles Barbara Martin, Paula Koikopoulos and outside hitter Nadica Karleusa.

Up in Laie, BYUH coach Wilfred Navalta is dealing with a group that's not so familiar. The Seasiders had only four returnees when they went to the gym two weeks ago. Working with a new batch of players suits Navalta.

"I kind of like to be the one hunting," Navalta said. "There's definitely less pressure because the other team should win. They have everybody returning."

The Seasiders lost much in the offseason. Nearly 50 percent of their offense is gone, with middles Ashley Moeai completing her eligibility and junior all-conference middle Chun Yi Lin not eligible along with outside hitter Silvia Oliveira, the player who unknowingly caused the forfeiture of the Seasiders' season last year.

Outside hitter Yu Chuan Weng, BYUH's only preseason All-PacWest selection, and setter Lesina Funaki are Navalta's building blocks for a team determined to overcome its adversity.

Not many coaches within the PacWest buy what Navalta, who won the national championship in 2002 with four freshmen in the lineup, is trying to sell.

"Wilfred always has something under his sleeve," said Ahuna, who hasn't defeated the Seasiders since 2001. "I don't know much and he keeps it a secret every year. He always comes out with some amazing athletes. I don't doubt that this year, he'll have some."

Second-year Hilo coach Julie Morgan already knows Navalta's tendency to understate his talent.

"Look out, look out. He's been known to sandbag," Morgan said. "I've been warned, that's how I know. He's proven to be fairly consistent over time. I'm sure he'll do a great job with the players that he has."

UH-Hilo lost a good chunk of last year's team to graduation and transfers. Morgan still has middles Cori Sutter and Christina Cooley back but not much else. The loss of libero Kahea Silva, who transferred to compete for UH-Manoa, hurts, but the Vulcans may have the surprise factor working for them. Opponents won't know what lineup to expect.

"I know the drawbacks of being the hunted," Morgan said. "I know the things a team goes through. For me, it wouldn't matter. It'd be great to be in that position."

It's a view that Chaminade coach Glennie Adams shares.

The Silverswords' squad is stocked with seven seniors who didn't particularly like fading at the end of last season. All-conference outside hitters Kahala Kabalis and Valasi Sepulona will drive the offense. Sophomore Patti Hardimon, last season's conference freshman of the year, is back to anchor one spot in the middle. The three of them comprise one-third of the preseason All-PacWest team, but they are still looking up at HPU and BYUH.

"I kind of like the chasing aspect," said Adams. "Realistically, it just takes a lot of pressure off of the kids. ... Heck, I'd love to be picked No. 1. I don't think anyone of us dodges it. HPU and BYU have more experience being picked as top guns, but it doesn't matter to me one way or the other."



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