They can beat every team in the country.
That’s what Hawaii volleyball coach Dave Shoji has told his Rainbow Wahine players.
But if Hawaii is to make a second consecutive trip to the NCAA final four, the Wahine will have to beat a lot of good teams to get there. A lot of good teams, seeded and unseeded.
Dispatched to the Seattle regional with a No. 15 seeding by the NCAA selection committee, the Wahine are arguably in the toughest quadrant of the 64-team bracket. Hawaii (28-2) opens with Big Sky champion Portland State (21-8) on Thursday at the University of Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The second match pits host Washington (21-8) against Michigan (23-9), which the Wahine defeated in last year’s regional final.
Also in Hawaii’s regional are second-seeded Nebraska (27-2), seventh seed California (25-3) and No. 10 seed Minnesota (24-8). All Seattle regional seeds except for Hawaii are hosting the first and second rounds.
"The seeding doesn’t really matter; it’s our bracket," Shoji said after yesterday’s selection show. "The bracket is loaded, it’s ridiculous … again.
"It’s amazing to me that they (the committee) can’t figure this out and balance the bracket. It’s not balanced at all. Michigan-Washington in the first round is ridiculous and there are other first-round matches that don’t make any sense."
Indeed, it appears that top-seeded Florida won’t be challenged until the regional final, where the Gators (27-1) likely will see host Texas (23-5), the ninth seed.
Stanford (24-3), seeded third, also shouldn’t get much of a test until the Dayton (Ohio) regional final, where the Cardinal should see sixth-seeded USC (25-4).
Three-time defending champion and fourth seed Penn State (26-5) is hosting through the regional final, and there are few bumps on Penn State’s road to Kansas City, Mo., site of the final four.
Asked about the other regionals, Shoji said: "I don’t have a comment about that. On paper, (the committee) should have done a better job at separating the top teams."
Utah State (24-8), which upset Hawaii in the Western Athletic Conference championship match last week, opens at No. 7 Cal. Aggies coach Grayson Dubose told the Star-Advertiser he was happy to still be playing this week, but "Cal in the first round? Really? We beat Hawaii. Couldn’t they throw me a bone?
"I don’t think losing to us should have hurt Hawaii that much, but it looks like it did," he said. "You look at their body of work, it should have counted for something. I think Hawaii got hosed."
The Wahine were disappointed about having to get on a plane tomorrow and about another low seed. But, as Hawaii did last year when making it through a tough regional as the 12th seed, the Wahine want to prove it on the court.
"We’ve been in this situation before, but rankings are rankings; it’s however you show up that night," junior hitter Kanani Danielson said. "It’s going to be hard from the start. We don’t have a break. Portland State could easily wipe out our chances to get far just because we decide not to play well that night.
"I’m excited that we’re staying on the West Coast. We had a wake-up call (losing to Utah State) and we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again."
"We need to take one game at a time and not worry about who else is in our bracket," added sophomore middle Brittany Hewitt.
Six teams Hawaii faced this season made the tournament — Utah State, USC, San Diego (23-5), New Mexico (20-9), UCLA (21-8) and Arizona (20-11), which the Wahine played in spring. Also in the field are Cincinnati (29-5), coached by Hilo High product Reed Sunahara, and UT-San Antonio (22-11), with former UH associate coach Howard Wallace on staff.
In the NCAA tournament for the first time is Big West champion Cal State Fullerton (25-6), the school Wahine freshman hitter Michelle Waber originally committed to.
"I’m really excited to get out there and start playing," said Waber, one of two freshmen in the UH starting lineup. "The team is ready. We just have to take it game by game. We need to keep our focus."
It will be on Portland State first. The Vikings are making their second NCAA appearance; their first was in 2008, when they lost to host Washington in the first round.
"I don’t know a whole lot about them," Portland State coach Mike Seemann said in a news release. "It’s exciting to play a team from a different conference and certainly an exciting team, a very good team."
Correction: Stanford’s mascot is the Cardinal and Mike Seemann is the coach of Portland State University. A previous version of this story contained incorrect references to both.