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"I have such a long way to go, so much to improve on. But there is no place better to do that than here."
Hawaii outside hitter
Matt Bender is a nationally
Pepperdine at Hawaii
When: Today and Friday, 7 p.m.
TV: Both matches live, KFVE (Ch. 5).
Tickets: $3-12 today, $3-11 Friday.
Note: Admission is free for UH students and children high school-age and younger wearing green shirts.
And he is a very good volleyball player who keeps it all in perspective with four words: "It's just a game."
Bender may be the reigning national player of the week, but the junior outside hitter for the Warriors feels he's nowhere close to being a marquee player.
"I had a good weekend," Bender said of the numbers he put up against UCLA last week. "I have such a long way to go, so much to improve on. But there is no place better to do that than here.
"There is no better place to play volleyball. My mother asked if I was thinking about playing pro, but I told her that I wasn't good enough for that. And besides, after playing here, frankly it would be a letdown."
With a wide-eyed enthusiasm and a seemingly perpetual smile on his face, Bender has become the go-to player when the Warriors need a pick-me-up. It may not come in the form of kills -- although he is second on the team behind senior Pedro Azenha -- or in an ace -- where he also trails Azenha.
The Hawaii players have come to rely on Bender for his positive attitude and energy he brings to the court.
"Plus, he is just so effective," sophomore setter Brian Beckwith said. "He can hit any ball. He hangs up there for the high ball, hits the trouble sets ... he's just a threat from all ends of the court.
"Definitely, he has gotten better from last year."
Last season, Bender averaged 3.29 kills a game, hit .295, and had a total of 10 aces. This year, he is averaging 3.55 kills, is hitting .303, and already has 10 aces.
In last Saturday's match at UCLA, one in which Hawaii coach Mike Wilton called Bender "poison," the junior hit .625 with 16 kills in 24 swings with just one error.
"He showed what he is capable of at any given moment," Beckwith said. "He really stepped it up for us. And he's just one of the many fire-power weapons we have."
Very early in the season, Bender and Azenha were competing for the same starting position at opposite. UH coach Mike Wilton said he had to find a way to have both of them on the court at the same time.
With the exception of the loss to Brigham Young on Jan. 7 and last Friday's defeat at No. 1 UCLA, the Warrior lineup has been very successful. There's a newfound confidence as Hawaii (11-2, 9-1) takes on Pepperdine (10-1, 10-1) tonight and Friday for the lead in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
"We're hoping to carry that confidence into these two tough matches," Bender said. "Pepperdine is a really, really good team. We need to keep doing what we've been doing.
"We had so much fun Saturday. I felt calm and it wasn't necessarily about competing. We were just playing the game we love to play and, when that happens, it always creates good results."
Bender had always been an athlete, but by the time he reached high school in his native Tucson, Ariz., he had grown tired of the sports he had been playing -- football, basketball, tennis and soccer. He discovered two new things that would forever change his life: volleyball and religion.
Bender started playing volleyball in high school and started going to church when he was 17.
"Everything changed when I started going to church," he said. "It opened up my eyes, seeing there is something so much greater. I've realized that when you're lying on your death bed, it's not going to matter that I had 16 kills one night.
"Knowing there is a greater purpose to your life makes it easier to be positive. I'm here for a reason. I know God knows what it is, I don't. I'm a true believer in my faith. Things happen for a reason."
Had he given into his homesickness during his redshirt freshman year, Bender knows life would be very different. He wouldn't be playing for the No. 2 team in the country nor would he have met the love of his life.
"I'm smitten," Bender said of his girlfriend Melanie Smith, a global environment major at UH. "I am deeply in love. It's the last piece of the puzzle to this great life here.
"Five years from now? I see myself married, with a good tech job, saving money, going to a great church. I'm not sure where it will happen. Maybe northern California, maybe here. Whatever happens will be what I'm supposed to be doing."
Bender has a strong feeling about what will be happening that first week of May. The team will be back at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion for the NCAA tournament.
"Our winning there Saturday sets the stage. We're going to do it again when we're there again."