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BYU knows Hawaii
No. 3 Hawaii at No. 6 BYUWhen: Tomorrow and Saturday, 7 p.m.
Radio: Both matches live, KKEA (1420-AM)
Back on Jan. 8, a young Warrior lineup fell apart late against the defending national champions, 30-28, 25-30, 30-28, 30-19. Both teams have had their struggles since then -- the Warriors' admitted lack of focus was the key to three losses, and the Cougars' offensive frustration the critical factor in most of their seven losses, including the surprising defeat at Pacific last Saturday.
These matches are crucial for both teams as they jockey for position in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoff seedings. The series will go a long way toward one team remaining a top 4 seed and first-round host.
The Cougars are very happy to be at home this week.
"We have changed our lineup since Hawaii and we have seen our weaknesses," BYU coach Tom Peterson said. "That win (Jan. 8) doesn't mean much. They're a much different team, a much better team now. They're in a groove and are one of the top three teams to beat.
"It seems that the top teams are the ones who mature better and make adjustments better than the other teams. We will have to play flawless to have a chance to beat them."
BYU has a few things on its side, including history. Hawaii is 3-10 against the Cougars in Smith.
BYU also has been serving well of late. In their last four matches (14 games), the Cougars have nailed 35 aces.
Hawaii is concerned with BYU's serving as well as its own in the thinner air of Provo. The Warriors have 70 aces this season, led by senior Pedro Azenha's 30, but air in Smith wreaks havoc with visitors' serves.
"The ball sails a little more here, where it gets driven into the court more at sea level," Peterson said. "That, and our fans, means the atmosphere helps the home team here as well as any other home-court advantages.
"Smith is hard to play in because of the intimacy of the fans. It is not a big arena (5,000-plus) where the crowd's emotions can be more diffused. We usually draw a significant number of fans as well and we're hoping to get a big crowd for Hawaii. It will help."
BYU could replace Hawaii at the top in attendance average this week. The Cougars, who are 102-13 at home since 1998, are averaging 4,191 this season to the Warriors' 4,256.
"We're going into a war zone," Hawaii sophomore middle Dio Dante said. "We've got to come out strong and not worry about the fans. We've got to be sound of mind as well as body."
It is the first trip to Provo to play for many of the Warriors, including Dante. For junior Mauli'a LaBarre, a member of the Latter Day Saints church, it's a return to where he started the process for his church mission to Russia in 2001.
"For me, it's a fun road trip, I get to visit with friends and family who live in Salt Lake," LaBarre said. "My mom is coming (from Hawaii) to watch. I'm excited.
"BYU is a great team. This is the next big step for us. If we could come back 4-0 (Hawaii plays twice at UC San Diego next week), it would be a good way to build a head of steam to finish off the season and go into the playoffs."
LaBarre could be one of the big differences for Hawaii this time against the Cougars. He ranks eighth nationally in blocking (1.39 blocks per game).
"Mau's got to know he's as good as any middle in the country," Hawaii coach Mike Wilton said. "And we have Dio (Dante) and Kyle (freshman Klinger) who are very effective blockers.
"We're a much different team than the last time we played them. We have grown a lot and we've improved a lot. And Brian (sophomore setter Beckwith) is a lot better since the start of the season.
"I think this team is believing in themselves a lot more. I think we're a pretty good volleyball team. I don't think there's a team out there that we can't beat. I think we're a contender (for the national title)."
Hawaii first has to contend with BYU, led by Outrigger Invitational MVP Michael Burke. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound senior middle blocker is fourth nationally in hitting percentage (.486) and Tuesday was named to the National Strength and Conditioning Association's All-America team.
The Cougars have also tinkered with their lineup, moving Victor Batista back in the middle and Casey Patterson at opposite. Freshman hitter Ivan Perez is beginning to come into his own, putting down a career-high 24 kills in Saturday's loss to Pacific.
As always, the team that serves and passes the best will win.
"We have athletes on the team and when we can ball-control we play well," Peterson said. "We just have to do it for longer periods of time.
"Hawaii is a team that can win it all. If they get on a roll, they are very hard to stop."