For a Hawaii volleyball team that has won the last 12 Western Athletic Conference championships, tonight’s match at New Mexico State is as close as it gets to a rivalry.
For the Aggies, it is everything.
"I don’t care if Nevada and Fresno State leave the WAC," NMSU coach Michael Jordan said. "It almost doesn’t matter who comes in their place. As long as we still have Hawaii, I’m happy. It gives us the marquee name and ability. The couple years we’ve been able to compete with them and beat them, those opportunities are still there so we can continue to make a name for ourselves. We’ve got a goal, someone to try to catch up to. Them being in our conference makes us better. I’d be really bummed if we lost Hawaii."
The sixth-ranked Wahine (12-1, 2-0 WAC) have lost only four regular-season matches in their 13-year-plus WAC history. Half those losses came against the Aggies, with the 2007 upset in Las Cruces, N.M., ending Hawaii’s NCAA-record 132-match conference winning streak. NMSU has lost to UH in the last four WAC tournament finals and was picked to finish second again this season by the coaches.
HAWAII VS. NEW MEXICO STATE
» When: 4 p.m. today
Playing the first road match of 2010 at the Pan American Center against the Aggies (8-7, 2-0) is not UH coach Dave Shoji’s idea of a good time, or good timing.
"I just hope we have a little more emotion on the road," Shoji said. "I think we got complacent being at home for how many matches. We take things for granted. It will rejuvenate us to go on the road and play somewhere else."
The extended season-opening homestand is normal for Hawaii. By the time it comes home Saturday it will have traveled more than 300,000 miles the last seven-plus seasons. No other volleyball team comes close. No others, aside from the UH men, make money in volleyball either — another justification for staying home as much as possible.
Shoji has tweaked his travel schedule the last few years, cutting WAC trips from four to three during the regular season by adding a third match to two trips. This season he is exploring the open road option. The Wahine will drive more than 3 hours tomorrow, from Dallas to Shreveport, La., then go another hour-plus to Ruston Friday to play Louisiana Tech (9-7, 0-2). The match might not last 90 minutes.
When Hawaii plays at Fresno State, San Jose State and Nevada in November, it will fly into San Francisco and bus to all three sites.
"Every WAC game is a challenge on the road," Shoji says. "Every city is hard to get to and there is driving involved. It is never an easy road."
He characterizes playing in the WAC similarly, despite his team’s dominance.
"A lot of people think the WAC is not competitive, but we know there are challenges almost every night," Shoji says. "I don’t listen to that. We need to respect every opponent and I think they (the players) do. That’s why we’ve done so well. We take every game seriously. We prepare and train. We want to get better during this part of the season as well."
He believes the Wahine have improved the first five weeks. First-year starter Chanteal Satele, who averaged four kills and hit .390 last week, has "steadied out" and the lineup has fewer "issues." Shoji likes his blocking and really likes his defense.
Sophomore Brittany Hewitt leads the country in stuffs again this week, with 1.79 a set — just under what New Mexico State averages as a team. At 4.47, senior libero Elizabeth Ka’aihue is on pace to break the school record for digs per set. She had multiple digs in last week’s remarkable rally with Nevada, when the ball crossed the net 65 times.
"Liz has elevated her game quite a bit," Shoji said. "She’s a big difference in our defense as opposed to last year."
Still, Shoji calls it "a struggle every night. It’s just not easy for us." And despite their success, the Wahine have sometimes struggled in the WAC, particularly against NMSU.
The Aggies beat Louisiana Tech twice last weekend, ending a six-match losing streak that began the day after Stephanie Ziegler broke her leg. Senior hitter Kayleigh Giddens is WAC player of the week after hitting .513 and collecting precisely as many kills (46) as the LaTech team. She ranks eighth nationally in kills per set (4.83), just ahead of UH’s Kanani Danielson.
"We have four first-team All-WAC players back," says Jordan, who has taken NMSU to five of the last seven NCAA tournaments. "If we stay healthy there is no reason we can’t continue to do what we’ve been doing the last few years. Our supporting cast is kind of young and as it gets a little more experience and skills improve this will make us better. By mid-season we’ll hit a good stride. I think we’ll be real tough to beat for anybody, if we stay healthy."
» Nevada senior Kylie Harrington, a Saint Francis graduate, collected eight kills in the Wolf Pack’s five-set loss at UNLV Monday. Harrington now has 1,006 in her career, and joins UH senior Kanani Danielson (1,036) as the only active WAC players with 1,000 or more.