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4 high-powered programs
Add host Hawaii, which has won this event four times and "it's an outstanding tournament," Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said.
"Every year we have been able to point toward this tournament in order to get a good early feel for where we are at and where we need to be late in the year," he said. "This competition exposes early-season cracks quickly and gives us more opportunity to address them throughout the season.
"This is an outstanding tournament. The environment in which the team gets to play and experience is the closest we get outside of Rec Hall to an NCAA (tournament)-type crowd. The competition is on that level, also."
"It's a doozy, that's for sure," Hawaii coach Mike Wilton added. "BYU will be ready to play. Lewis has very good players and Penn State is loaded.
"We're banged up but the (injury list) news is on the upswing. This week will be a really good test for us."
The odds are that at least one of these teams will be at UCLA this May for the final four. For those not wanting to make the trip, this week will be the ticket ... cheaper and without the jetlag.
This is Hawaii's 11th time hosting this event, and the Warriors are 20-9. Penn State, making its 11th appearance, is 7-22, while Lewis is 3-6 in three visits. This is BYU's inaugural appearance.
Thomas is still waiting on academic clearance and won't become eligible at least until next week when classes begin again at UH.
Injuries will have Wilton juggling the lineup, much as he had to in last week's exhibitions against Alberta. Anchoring the outside attack is senior opposite Pedro Azenha, who had a combined 53 kills in last week's two matches.
Also on the outside is slimmed-down senior Jose Delgado, who dropped 35 pounds during the offseason to help a chronic back problem.
Hawaii's three other attackers have a mixed plate of injuries: opposite Matt Bender (bursitis in his hitting shoulder), hitter Lauri Hakala (sprained ankle) and Matt Carere (back spasms). Hakala practiced yesterday, Carere did non-practice exercises and Bender was expected back today.
With Thomas out, it moves freshman transfer Jake Schkud into the middle, along with junior Maulia La Barre, who was 16th in the NCAA last season in blocking (1.27 bpg).
Helping Schkud's transition is the connection he has with Warrior sophomore setter Brian Beckwith. The two played high school and club ball together for a number of years.
Beckwith has the nod at setter over senior Daniel Rasay. The libero battle continues between junior Alfred Reft and sophomore Eric Kalima.
The Cougars lost five starters from last season, including setter Carlos Moreno, the MVP of last May's national championship and the AVCA's National Player of the Year. The Brazilian had been expected to return for one more season, but it was deemed he had used up all of his eligibility.
Also gone are All-Americans Fernando Pessoa and Joe Hillman. But BYU has senior blocker Michael Burke and athletic junior hitter Victor Batista.
Burke hit for a team-high .506 while finishing second in blocks at 1.17 per game. Batista led the team with 1.24 blocks per game and was second on the team with a .458 hitting percentage.
Setting for BYU is junior Rob Neilson, whom Wilton had in summer camp. "He's really good," Wilton said.
Junior opposite Taylor Evans had an impressive preseason, including a .630 night with 11 kills in a sweep of Pepperdine.
"We are inexperienced but, at the same time very talented," said third-year Cougar coach Tom Peterson, whose team won 21 in a row last season. "It will depend a lot on ball control, especially passing. If we can get some of the same magic, the same concept of team, and work hard as a team, not just as individuals, we could go a long way."
Peterson is the only coach to have won the national title at two different schools. In 1994, he led Penn State to the championship.
Also back are junior all-league selections setter Dan O'Dell, opposite Matt Proper, hitter Kevin Wentzel and middle Nate Meerstein and the league's Newcomer of the Year Alex Gutor.
The only question for the Lions is who will replace All-American libero Ricky Mattei, the school's all-time dig leader (909). Among the candidates are true freshman Gary Vogel, who led his Hempfield (Pa.) High team to four consecutive state championships (2001-2004) and was a first team all-state player for three years, and sophomore Ryan Walthall, who was the backup setter last season.
"Our team looks like it is ready to pick up where we left off in May," Pavlik said. "Our main strength will be our returning experience. We should be getting better in every aspect of the game because of this.
"Our setting has been better as has been our attacking this preseason. Our middles should be very good, also. The main question will be can we pass at a high enough level over the course of a game, a match, the season, so we can keep our offense running at a good level?"
That said, the Flyers will still be a power to be reckoned with under new coach Dan Friend and five starters back. Among those returning with final-four experience are senior hitter Jeff Soler and blockers Enrique Escalante and Greg Pochopien.
Soler averaged 3.58 kills per game and 1.37 digs. Escalante was second on the team with a .406 hitting percentage and averaged 1.14 kills. Pochopien ranked ninth nationally in blocks (1.39 bpg).
Junior Brandon Sisk, whose first collegiate start was at last year's Outrigger tournament, returns at setter.
"My teams tend to be more defensive oriented," said Friend, who took a brand new program at Newman University to the NAIA championship final within three years. "Lewis has traditionally been a very strong offensive team, so if we can complement that with a stronger defense, we'll continue to succeed at a high level.
"The key for us this season is having fun. With everything we've gone through, having fun will be an integral component. Team chemistry is everything, and you don't win at a high level without it."