In the midst of all the current conference madness, Hawaii is chasing another volleyball final four, New Mexico is chasing Hawaii and stable BCS siblings Southern California and Michigan State are here for the ride at this weekend’s Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Classic.
The fourth-ranked Rainbow Wahine ended the seasons of the Lobos and Trojans last December in an NCAA subregional. They have ended three of 10th-ranked USC’s past four seasons. Fourth-year New Mexico coach Jeff Nelson and his boss, former UH basketball player Janice (Branch) Ruggiero, have been taking notes.
Ruggiero is in her 20th year at UNM, where she is now associate athletic director/senior women’s administrator. The school dropped women’s basketball in 1987 and her teammate sent a tape to then-UH coach Vince Goo. He saw Ruggiero on it and offered her a scholarship for her senior year.
Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Classic
» Where: Stan Sheriff Center
Those two semesters are basically all the time she spent on Oahu until this week, but she has never forgotten the warm experience. She keeps in contact with Goo and former teammates/current Rainbow Wahine basketball coaches Dana Takahara-Dias and Da Houl, among others.
"I have so much aloha for Hawaii because everyone gave me all the aloha back," Ruggiero says. "I came here for just one year. I was a senior, not only the new kid but ending your career, not starting it. Dana and her parents was very good to me. Vince was very good with me. Da was great. The people here are great. I tell people even now, people in Hawaii are just very kind."
It was a year that helped shape her life. Hawaii’s devotion to family struck a familiar chord and stuck with her. Her parents, the ones who encouraged her to pursue that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Hawaii 23 years ago, are with her this week. Her volleyball team drew 3,831 to its match with then-No. 4 Stanford last weekend, its seventh-largest crowd in history. Ruggiero ran in just as it started, straight from her son’s baseball game.
"That’s what people in Hawaii do," Ruggiero says. "It’s all about family, and I love it. Unless UNM is playing, I cheer for Hawaii."
The Wahine open with Michigan State tonight and face the Lobos tomorrow, closing with USC on Sunday at 5 p.m. The Spartans and UNM are both receiving votes in the poll. New Mexico moved up 13 spots this week — to 27th — after beating Pepperdine and getting swept by Stanford.
The Lobos have also bumped up their attendance since Nelson came in. They were among the national leaders in the early ’90s, then dropped out of sight and the NCAA tournament for 15 years. Their appearance last year was the first since 1994. Not coincidentally, they were 23rd nationally in attendance last year, averaging 1,677. It was far behind the 6,423 pace Hawaii set, but not far from the top 15.
The Lobos "wannabe" the ‘Bows in volleyball, on the court and in the stands. It starts with recruiting and winning. Ruggiero, who extended Nelson’s contract into 2017 last year, sees no reason volleyball can’t draw 5,000.
The role model for that has always been Hawaii and coach Dave Shoji. UH has led the country in attendance since moving into the Stan Sheriff Center in 1994 and is the only collegiate volleyball program that turns a profit. Ruggiero was here when the Rainbow Wahine won their fourth, and last, national championship in 1987. They have been to the final four six times since.
If Ruggiero worked here, Shoji’s contract would basically be in perpetuity.
"Dave is an icon," she says. "He is UH volleyball. He’s been here 36 years. A coach like that who really loves where they are, in their hometown, he is volleyball. A guy like that, you let him coach as long as he wants. They tell you when they’ve had enough."
Ruggiero is admittedly biased, but that volleyball tradition, her conviction that Wahine basketball is on its way back and Hawaii’s success in football and "Olympic sports" have her convinced that when the conference shuffle ends, the Wahine will be OK. Along with volleyball’s unique success, they have one other factor that sets them apart.
"I don’t think they are in a bad situation because I think that any league that has Hawaii is lucky," Ruggiero says. "You get to have your kids know they are going to go to Hawaii. For a lot of kids, if you don’t come to school here, that’s the next-best thing. They will always know they get to play here."
» Brittany Hewitt’s 16 total blocks in the season opener broke the school rally-scoring record and tied for fourth-most in UH history. The team’s 39 block assists that night were also one off the record. Hawaii had 21.5 blocks against San Diego, the first time since 2004 UH collected more than 20.
» UH reserve middle blocker Alexis Forsythe injured her thumb in practice earlier this week and has been out. Her status is day to day. Corinne Cascioppo, a backup hitter, has also been out while undergoing medical tests.
» Last week was the sixth Rainbow Wahine Invitational. UH has won it every year but 2007. This week is the 23rd annual Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Classic and UH has won nine.