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[ UH VOLLEYBALL ]
Elliott, the coach of No. 10 Texas, briefly was part of the Hawaii volleyball tradition. He played two matches for the Rainbow Warriors in 1990 before being injured and "I've got great memories of my time there," said Elliott. "I'm still very close with some of those players, especially Brian Poppinga."
Elliott decided to transfer from Pepperdine a year after Texas won its first NCAA title, defeating the Rainbow Wahine in the 1988 final. In the "small world" category, his island ties remain strong ... he and UH associate head coach Charlie Wade "go way back," Elliott said, to when the two were part of rival volleyball clubs in Southern California in the late 1980s.
Elliott, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, would be happy if Texas and No. 2 Hawaii were to meet in Saturday's regional championship. It would mean that both the Longhorns and the Wahine were able to get past tough opponents on Friday, Texas in No. 6 Stanford and Hawaii in No. 22 Wisconsin.
"It's a really evenly matched regional," Elliott said. "When I first saw the bracket, my real excitement was over being able to play teams that we hadn't played before (this season).
"It's a very fair bracket with equally talented teams. The matchups should be great and it's a regional where any of the teams can advance."
This regional also features three NCAA Player of the Year candidates in Hawaii sophomore setter Kanoe Kamana'o, Texas senior hitter Mira Topic and Stanford senior hitter Ogonna Nnamani. Elliott, the interim coach at USC five years ago, is very familiar with Kamana'o, whom USC contacted as a potential recruit.
"I followed Kanoe very closely and we corresponded for a while, but her heart was set on Hawaii early on," said Elliott, whose last recruiting class at USC are seniors this year. "There's no question she is one of the top setters in the country and we have a tremendous amount of respect for her.
"Kanoe is extremely talented. She's a great leader, has great confidence, plays great defense and is able to create a lot of 1-on-1's for her hitters. She is an unbelievable setter and, without her, Hawaii would be a different team."
Hawaii is a team that, in 30 matches, hasn't been beaten. It's a team that, in 30 matches, also hasn't beaten itself.
"They're a strong team," Wisconsin coach Pete Waite said of his opponent Friday. "They've always been tough defensively. And they've traveled well and been successful."
The Badgers did not travel all that well this season, particularly last month. Wisconsin was 4-4 in November, with all four losses coming on the road, including three in a row.
But, in their defense, the Badgers were at Illinois, Penn State and Ohio State -- all ranked -- for successive matches. After winning two at home to end the skid, Wisconsin then ran into an improving Purdue team in West Lafayette, Ind., the same team that knocked off then-No. 9 Colorado State in last week's first-round match.
"Wisconsin is another good, big Big Ten team," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said. "They're not going to be intimidated by us. They're used to playing in a big-time atmosphere."
Teams reaching the Sweet 16 rarely are one-dimensional. It is the case with all four teams here, particularly Hawaii.
"From the matches I've seen on TV, Hawaii is a real 'team,' " Elliott said. "It's a team that has immense ball control and discipline. And they're scary.
"They're not real flashy. They've got great players at every position. They're very methodical and a very solid, consistent volleyball team. The coaching staff has done an incredible job."
Elliott said he's been in discussions with the Hawaii staff to bring out his team for a spring match in 2006. He'd like to see the Wahine sooner ... as in Saturday's regional final.
Stanford would like to be there, too.
"Hawaii has got some magic going," Cardinal coach John Dunning said. "Dave (Shoji) is a really good coach and they have tradition. They've won some great matches early and, when that happens, the momentum is hard to stop.
"It's like rolling a snowball in fresh snow. It gets bigger and bigger. With our young team, it took us half the season to get there. Whether our snowball is as big as theirs, we'll see."
Hawaii is the winningest program in the country since 2000 (160-12). The Wahine are led by Kamana'o, last year's national Freshman of the Year, who is the only player in the country averaging more than 13.5 assists (13.63), three digs (3.13) and one block (1.14) per game.
Kamana'o runs a balanced attack, led by left-side hitters Susie Boogaard and Alicia Arnott.
Boogaard, a junior, has stepped it up in the postseason, averaging 4.14 kills a game and hitting .381 in last week's two tournament matches. Arnott, a sophomore, leads the team in kills (4.14 kpg), with a 2.97 dig average and 32 aces.
Junior transfer Victoria Prince is hitting .420 with 1.65 blocks and 3.40 kills per game and a team-high 37 aces. One of the smallest middle blockers in Division I, Prince battled "flu-like symptoms" last week and has been slowed by strep throat this week; she expected to start Friday.
Hawaii features the Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in Tara Hittle, and a trio of middles who have solidified the defense at the net in senior Melody Eckmier and freshmen Kari Gregory and Juliana Sanders. Senior Teisa Fotu continues to play well at libero, replacing the injured Ashley Watanabe.
Hawaii is 1-1 against Wisconsin, with a 3-0 victory over the Badgers in the 1993 NCAA tournament and a 3-0 loss to them in the 2001 NACWAA Preseason Tournament.
Hawaii is 9-1 against Texas, the only loss coming in the 1988 NCAA final. The Wahine are 17-11 against Stanford, ending a seven-match losing skid last year with a 3-2 victory in the Sprint Hawaii Invitational.
"Traveling 3,000 miles and having to play Florida (in the second round), oh, my gosh, to say it was a tough draw is an understatement," said Dunning. "But, like Hawaii, those tough early matches make you better and, for our team, it's prepared us for this week.
"For us to beat Texas, we're going to have to keep improving, which has been our motto from the start. There are some great players in this regional and it's going to be really exciting volleyball."
Stanford's offense is anchored by Nnamani, one of the youngest players on last summer's U.S. Olympic team. She is hitting .338 and averaging 5.88 kills. The Cardinal start two freshmen in setter Bryn Kehoe (12.11 apg) and middle Franci Girard (1.82 kpg), plus sophomore Lizzie Suiter (1.52 bpg).
Stanford has two island connections: senior defensive specialist Leahi Hall (Maui) and Cobey Shoji, Dave Shoji's daughter, who is the Cardinal's director of volleyball operations.
Stanford has been in all 24 NCAA tournaments, winning five national titles and finishing second five times.
Topic is the biggest weapon for the Longhorns. The Czech national hits .312 with averages of 5.65 kills, 3.25 digs and 0.75 blocks per game; her 22 kills against Michigan gave her the school's single-season kill record with 576.
Freshman setter Michelle Moriarty averages 13.14 assists per game. Senior middle Bethany Howden is tops in blocking (1.02).
"Our team has great balance and ball control," Elliott said. "We've been winning the serve-and-pass game. And I have the best serving rotation I've had as a coach."
The Longhorns had nine aces in Saturday's win over Michigan.
This is the first time Texas has reached the Sweet 16 since 1998. The last time UT played Hawaii was in the 1996 NCAA regional semifinal, with the Wahine winning 4-1.
This is Wisconsin's 13th NCAA appearance and ninth consecutive. UW's highest finish came when the team fell to Nebraska in the 2000 championship match.
The Badgers are big and block well. They led the Big Ten with a 3.11 block average in finishing fourth in the conference at 13-7.
Last week, they had 18.5 blocks in topping Loyola 3-0 and 15 blocks in sweeping Notre Dame 3-0. Against the Irish, Wisconsin held off nine game points in Game 1, rallying from a 29-23 deficit to win 36-34.
Wisconsin has a balanced offense with five players averaging over 2.50 kpg, led by 6-1 junior middle Sheila Shaw (3.82 kpg, 1.34 bpg), a unanimous All-Big Ten selection.
Senior hitter Jill Odenthal (6-foot) averages 2.99 kills, 6-2 sophomore middle Maria Carlini 2.79, 6-0 senior hitter Aubrey Meierotto 2.77 and 6-2 senior hitter Marian Weidner 2.51.
Freshman setter Jackie Simpson is averaging 12.98 assists. Freshman libero Jocelyn Wack averages 4.82 digs, and had a season-high 29 in a four-game loss at Penn State last month.