Another tough test for
Wahine: No. 2 Huskies

While Hawaii continues a
rigorous early-season schedule,
Washington has been taking it easy

Their schedules are the antipodes of women's college volleyball.

At one end, there is No. 6 Hawaii, looking for the toughest competition to start the year with the hopes of staying sharp through the Western Athletic Conference season, which opens next week. The Wahine (5-3) have already seen four ranked teams and take on a fifth tomorrow and Saturday.

At the other end is No. 2 Washington, looking to become as good as it can before the nightly battle of Pac-10 play opens, also next week. The Huskies (7-0), who haven't dropped a game in their first seven matches, face their first ranked team tomorrow and Saturday.

Which route is the best for a team with final-four aspirations? Both coaches like the path they've taken so far.

"People said the same thing last year (about the schedule) and we got to the final four," said Washington coach Jim McLaughlin, whose Huskies advanced to the NCAA semifinals for the first time in school history last December. "Obviously, it didn't hurt us. We get tested every day in practice and our conference is so tough as it is ...

"We tried to make the schedule tougher. We thought we were going to go to the NACWAA Tournament, but Stanford went and they didn't want a second Pac-10 team. And we tried to get teams to come to Seattle and they wouldn't.

"I can say that we are very fired up to come play Hawaii. I think we're ready to go. It's a big match for us in a great atmosphere."

It's also a big match for Dave Shoji and Hawaii. The Rainbow Wahine, almost at full strength, showed flashes of how good they could be when going 3-0 in last week's Waikiki Beach Marriott Challenge.

"We're playing a very good opponent," Shoji said. "I'd rather play a tough schedule, but that's (McLaughlin's) choice to do what he does.

"We set this up a few years ago. I thought (Sanja) Tomasevic would be gone. She's not. She's one of the best players in the country. They've got a solid ball club without her, but they're obviously much better with her."

The NCAA granted Tomasevic another year of eligibility following an appeal by UW. In May, the NCAA ruled that the war in her native Serbia & Montenegro delayed Tomasevic's college plans, causing her to enroll after she was 21 (when the NCAA's eligibility clock starts).

Now 25, Tomasevic was a second-team All-American in 2003 and was leading UW in kills last year before a broken hand sidelined her for five weeks. She returned for UW's Senior Night then proceeded to lift them into the final four after being named the regional MVP.

The 6-foot-1 hitter has picked up where she left off, hitting an amazing .509 and averaging 3.53 kills and 1.16 blocks per game.

"Her hand is fully healed," McLaughlin said. "She's just a good player in a lot of areas. She understands she's got to get better and that the team has got to get better if we want to win a national championship."

How much better can they be? Most feel Washington has never been this good, with six starters back from a 28-3 team and All-Americans in seniors Tomasevic and libero Candace Lee, junior setter Courtney Thompson and sophomore hitter Christal Morrison.

The Huskies also have 6-1 senior Brie Hagerty, an All-Pac-10 hitter who has the lowest hitting percentage (.394) on the team but is the kill leader (3.88 kpg).

"It's hard to evaluate them, based on who they've played," Shoji said. "But we do know they're one of the elite programs in the country."

The Wahine are 7-1 against the Huskies, the only UW victory coming in Hawaii's injury-plagued 1992 season. It was the only time the Wahine did not advance to postseason play.

McLaughlin thinks his team is as good as, if not better than, last year's squad that won its first Pac-10 title.

"At least that's what I hope, because I feel we have a chance to do something great this year," said McLaughlin, a former UC Santa Barbara player whose coaching career has been split between men's programs (Pepperdine and USC) and women's (Notre Dame and Kansas State prior to UW). "It took people a while before they thought we were for real last year.

"I think this will be good for us, a week away from starting the Pac-10. Dave has a real good team, with lots of good players. Just playing at Hawaii in their great atmosphere will be a challenge. We'd go every year if we had the chance.

"It's a great place to play and it will help us improve."

Island ties: Washington has two former island prep athletes on its roster in sophomore defensive specialist Ashley Aratani (Iolani) and freshman setter/libero Tamari Miyashiro (Kalani).

Aratani has played in 10 games, with one dig and three aces. McLaughlin said he's hoping to redshirt Miyashiro as the heir-apparent to Thompson at setter.

Health watch: Sophomore middle Kari Gregory sat out Tuesday's practice with a sore knee tweaked in Friday's win over Cal State Northridge. Tests have determined the injury was not serious and she was back at practice yesterday.

Sophomore hitter Tara Hittle (sprained ankle) may see front-row action this week after being used as a libero the past two weeks. Shoji said he was still evaluating whether to keep Hittle as a back-row player -- "She stabilizes our passing" -- or have her return to the outside, where she earned conference Freshman of the Year honors last season.

Also recovered from "flu-like symptoms" and available is junior hitter Alicia Arnott.

In the gym: Former Stanford All-American Logan Tom has been working out with the Wahine this week while on vacation in Hawaii. She'll return to her pro team in Italy later this year.

Women's college volleyball

Who: No. 2 Washington (7-0) at No. 6 Hawaii (5-3)

When: Tomorrow at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 6 p.m.

Where: Stan Sheriff Center

Tickets: $3-$18.

Radio: Both matches live, KKEA (1420-AM)

TV: Tomorrow's match live on KFVE (Ch. 5); Saturday's match live on pay-per-view (Dig. 255), delayed on KHNL, 10 p.m.

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