LAS VEGAS » As the University of Hawaii ponders the possibility of leaving the Western Athletic Conference, across the Pacific Ocean its third-ranked Rainbow Wahine eye yet another WAC championship. And a fifth national volleyball title when the NCAA tournament opens next week.
Hawaii is going after its 13th consecutive WAC title at this week’s WAC tournament in the Orleans Arena. It plays Idaho in a semifinal today at 5:30 p.m. The fifth-seeded Vandals beat the fourth-seeded Boise State Broncos 16-25, 27-25, 25-20, 25-27, 15-7.
Of all the overwhelming performances it has put on since joining the WAC in 1996, 2010 has seen Hawaii at its uno-dos-adios best. The Wahine (27-1) did not drop a set in their 16 WAC matches.
They led every meaningful statistic but one — second to Utah State in blocking — and tore it up individually. Four Wahine are among the top 10 in WAC hitting and aces.
Sophomore Brittany Hewitt leads the collegiate world in blocks and nearly had a perfect game hitting against New Mexico State. Senior Elizabeth Ka’aihue is averaging nearly five digs a set in the WAC, and more than seven in a couple of matches. Emily Hartong, basically a role player this season, earned WAC freshman of the year honors Sunday because, as one coach put it, "If she was on any other team she would be their best player."
"It would be hard to believe there would come a day when Hawaii wouldn’t be the most athletic team in the conference," says New Mexico State coach Michael Jordan, whose team has lost to UH in the last four WAC tournament finals. "Depth is an overused word, but they could have an injury and replace a player and the replacement would be maybe not as skilled, but she would certainly be another fantastic athlete. The rest of us would be hard-pressed to do that."
It has been such a strange year in the WAC that, without a couple of late surprises, there could have been a four-way tie for third behind Hawaii and NMSU. All four teams would have been 8-8.
There is no doubt the WAC is better this year, from bottom to top, but especially at the top.
Hawaii takes a ton of streaks into this tournament. It has won its last 22 matches and there is a 29-match WAC tournament streak on the line. The Wahine have won their last 46 against WAC opponents.
They have captured their last 59 sets, a streak that goes back to Sept. 11. It is fifth-longest in NCAA history. Penn State holds the record of 111 from 2007 to 2008.
UH coach Dave Shoji is not sweating it. Next year could be Hawaii’s last in the WAC. He wants to enjoy being around his relatively new group of coaching friends, and wearing the bull’s-eye a bit longer.
"I think the WAC allowed us to grow as a team," Shoji said. "There was not the pressure every single night. I was free to substitute and try different things sometimes and I think that helped us in the long run to grow as a team.
"The league has actually been good for us. I’m not sure I would like to play in the Pac-10. It’s an intriguing thought, but every night out it’s a war. Sometimes that is not great on your players. You get worn down."
» All Hawaii matches in the tournament will be broadcast live on KKEA, 1420-AM. ESPNU will telecast tomorrow’s WAC Championship live at 4:30 p.m. Hawaii time.
» Hawaii averaged 6,169 in its 20 home matches, with all those matches among the top 25 crowds this year. The biggest crowd — 7,866 — showed up for the only loss, against USC.
» The Orleans Arena holds 7,000 and the Wahine are hoping to bring between 2,000 and 3,000 from home. Last year 1,700 UH fans showed up, with less than 6 months’ notice on the site of the tournament.
» For those interested, Cal State Fullerton clinched its first Big West title Friday. The Titans had never finished higher than fifth prior to this season, but won their last nine to qualify for their first NCAA tournament berth. Long Beach State, which won the last two titles, tied for second with Cal Poly, with UC Santa Barbara fourth and Pacific fifth.
» Hawaii is 11th in this week’s NCAA RPI, with the country’s best winning percentage. Fullerton is the highest-rated Big West team at No. 30.
WAC tournament a warmup for NCAAs
Elizabeth Ka’aihue, the Rainbow Wahine senior tri-captain, has extra incentive to get to Kansas City, site of the 2010 NCAA volleyball final four. Oldest brother Kila plays first base for the Royals. Here are Elizabeth’s thoughts going into this week’s WAC tournament:
» Nov. 22, 2010
WAC tournament here already? This season has gone by so fast and is just speeding up into postseason. As the regular season closes and I reflect on our accomplishment as a team, I am a happy and proud senior. Undefeated in the WAC season without dropping a set shows how hard this team works day in and day out in both the practice gym and the weight room. Also a contributing factor to this accomplishment is the maturity of the team and how we respect every opponent and make sure we don’t take anyone lightly. Once on the court, it’s all business.
There is no "I" in team. A perfect motto for this 2010 Rainbow Wahine volleyball team. The unselfish attitudes, constant determination and humility are recurring characteristics in both our players and our staff. We know how to work hard, but this team most definitely knows how to have fun!
WAC tournament, selection show and then postseason … WAC tournament is a refreshing competitive atmosphere that prepares us for postseason. It’s always nice to play in Vegas, kind of like a home away from home with the amount of supporting fans that come out to watch us play. Although this tournament goes by fast, it’s nice to compete for the championship. It is kind of the last time for all the WAC teams that make it to show everyone what we all got.
Time is of the essence now that we are on our fourth road trip of the season. It has been a great ride so far with this team and will only get better as we begin the NCAA tournament. I wouldn’t mind it at all if we continued all the way through as the last team standing in my brother’s stomping ground of Kansas City.