SEATTLE » In the third week of the volleyball season, Portland State blew a 14-8, fifth-set lead against lowly San Jose State. Three weeks later, SJSU beat Utah State in four.
Two months later, with SJSU’s season over, the Aggies swept Hawaii in the Western Athletic Conference tournament final. They ended the Rainbow Wahine’s 62-set and 23-match winning streaks last Wednesday and provided yet another example of why this might be the wackiest season in NCAA volleyball history.
Tomorrow, Big Sky champion Portland State (21-8) plays seventh-ranked Hawaii (28-2) in an NCAA tournament first-round match at Washington’s Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The Wahine are seeded 15th in the postseason.
The winner plays Friday against the 11th-ranked Huskies (21-8) or 23rd-ranked Michigan (23-8), which fell to Hawaii 51 weeks ago in a regional final. Both those teams had their share of success and strife in the conference season.
UW, the 2005 national champion, has wins and losses against top-20 teams USC, UCLA and Arizona and finished fifth in the Pac-10. The Wolverines split with Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan State and Northwestern and still tied for fourth in the Big Ten, which sent eight teams to the tournament.
This thrill-a-minute season has been the antithesis of last, when Penn State’s third consecutive national championship, in the midst of a 109-match winning streak, was awesome but predictable.
What the Wahine get in the first round is an opponent ranked 110th in the NCAA RPI, to their 11th. The Vikings — who also play the Wahine in basketball tomorrow, 145 miles away — have won their last nine.
They are 18-2 since that dubious start in which they hit bottom against San Jose State. Michael Seemann, who has guided the Vikings to 20 wins all four years as head coach, calls it "the darkest day of my career for sure."
It started with a sweep by Santa Clara at 11 a.m. That night Portland State got up on SJSU 14-8 in the fifth, with Whitney Phillips — the Big Sky player of the year — in the front row. The Spartans scored eight straight.
Those early losses came back to taunt them into something much bigger and better than ever before. The Vikings captured the regular-season and tournament titles for the first time.
"If I had to find a plus in the early season," Seemann said, "When we lost a lot of close five-set matches — against Oregon, Oregon State and teams we felt we were a little stronger than like San Jose State, it’s that we came away with some really heartbreaking losses. Bad losses. The positive is that we don’t panic when we get down now. We keep our composure. This team’s sense of urgency is not really there until their backs are to the wall."
Portland State won four NCAA Division II national titles before stepping up in 1996. It is now headed to its second Division I postseason, this time at a neutral site, against an opponent no one really knows what to expect from after last week.
Hawaii coach Dave Shoji has been happy with his players’ practices since they returned from Las Vegas. There have been meetings of the minds, an emphasis on blocking and passing and an understanding that it is still "all ahead of us."
"You always worry about confidence," Shoji acknowledges. "But it’s nothing a good match Thursday won’t cure. We need to play well Thursday and get some momentum back. Confidence comes and goes with all volleyball teams. We need to get out there and play well."
A more visible concern is Portland State in general and Phillips in particular.
Like Utah State, the Vikings have four seniors who play primary roles. Like Hawaii, with All-American Kanani Danielson, they have one dominant player.
Phillips, a 5-foot-10 senior hitter, played her first two years at New Mexico State. She had 91 kills in 94 sets, then transferred when she lost her position to Kayleigh Giddens.
Phillips’ game has elevated in every way since. She ranks seventh nationally in kills (4.81) and sixth in points (5.38); Danielson is 10th (4.64) and ninth (5.22). Phillips has led the Big Sky in both categories both years and is closing on PSU’s career top 10 in kills with 1,000-plus.
She has more — much more — than twice as many kills as any teammate. Setter Garyn Schlatter, also a Big Sky first-team selection and freshman of the year, finds her any time and any place.
Phillips, though hitting just .221, has been dominant.
"The key for her," Seemann says, "is she can rack up a lot of errors, so this year we’ve worked with her to be smart in situations. Defensively, we dominate our conference, so often if there’s no kill she just needs to put it in play and we’ll get it back. It works in our conference."
The Vikings have one player from Hawaii — freshman Kaeli "Pinky" Patton, out of Radford. They heard from her as soon as the pairings were announced Sunday. "She was actually the loudest in terms of screaming," Seemann said. "I think it’s special for her. She called home immediately. She was proud. It’s a great thing to be there as a freshman and then to play Hawaii."