SEATTLE » It was a balmy December day here yesterday. Temperatures were in the 40s. There was a blue sky sighting.
For seventh-ranked Hawaii, the sun does come up after losing a Western Athletic Conference volleyball title. But in tonight’s NCAA championship first-round match against Portland State, it faces two foes.
Radio: KKEA 1420-AM, Hawaii matches
TV: KFVE, all matches
First, the Rainbow Wahine must overcome themselves after a shockingly poor performance against Utah State in last week’s WAC tournament final. Then they have to deal with the Vikings, who feature four seniors — especially Whitney Phillips — and a few wrinkles.
Senior Dani Mafua said the Wahine "made a pact to stick together no matter what and all play for each other" before they even touched down from Las Vegas last Thursday.
There have been player meetings, talks with a sports psychologist and many inward glances the past week. Hawaii was challenged for the first time in months against USU. Its response was so uninspired, with the exception of some wondrous runs by Kanani Danielson, that the team with all the amazing streaks coming into Vegas was almost unrecognizable coming out.
"Utah State put pressure on us, and we didn’t respond well," Mafua said. "It definitely lit a fire back under our butts to get moving again."
The unspoken aura of invincibility is gone. A renewed and intense focus on blocking and passing is back.
UH coach Dave Shoji was empathetic with his players after last week’s nightmare, when "we all played bad," said Elizabeth Ka’aihue, UH’s other senior. "It was just really weird. And they (the Aggies) were amazing."
Shoji tried to ease his team’s sadness and shock and bring it back to a better frame of mind. "Put it in the perspective that it’s hard for a team to be so perfect," Ka’aihue explained.
"I really wanted to focus on this weekend," Shoji said. "Last week was important in the sense that we wanted to win the championship, but this week was more important. We couldn’t dwell on the loss; we had to focus on the future."
It won’t take long to find out how the Wahine are feeling tonight. Portland State is not seeded or ranked, but it has found ways to win.
After opening the season with freshman setter Garyn Schlatter and a 3-7 record, it has won 18 of its past 20. In its current nine-match winning streak, four wins have come in five sets, including both Big Sky tournament matches. Schlatter was named freshman of the year.
The Vikings were down 0-2 in their semifinal and won. They could have easily been clearing lockers and hunkering down for finals now. Instead they are looking for a little of the "magic" Utah State found, Big Sky coach of the year Michael Seemann said.
Phillips is the focal point, with more than a third of her team’s kills. The Big Sky player of the year has 19 double-doubles this season and 1,064 kills since she transferred from New Mexico State in 2009.
But it’s Schlatter who Hawaii has not quite figured out. To take pressure off his young setter, and because she is a force at the net, Seemann has her hit during some front-row rotations. She had a triple-double this season and has 155 kills, most swinging away from the outside.
"If you’re not paying attention, not following it, you really wouldn’t know what they were doing," Shoji said. "But one setter sets, and sometimes she doesn’t. They rotate into a 6-2 (six hitters-two setters), but sometimes the setter that stays in hits and she also sets from the front row."
The Vikings try to make it as tough as possible.
"We may or may not use her as a swing for a sideout," Seemann said of Schlatter. "In Garyn’s front-row rotations, I will use Domi (Dominika Kristinikova) to set and serve-receive. Often just to give the defense a different look."
TEAMS AT A GLANCE
HAWAII (seeded 15th)
(28-2, lost last 1)
» AVCA ranking: 7
» NCAA RPI: 11
» NCAA tournament record: 69-25
» T25 NCAA statistical rankings: Team — Assists-11th (13.49), Blocks-22nd (2.66), Hitting-14th (.287), Kills-11th (14.48). Player — Dani Mafua (24th assists 11.21), Brittany Hewitt (first blocks 1.67), Kanani Danielson (10th kills 4.64 and ninth points 5.22).
» Conference finish: First regular season, second WAC tournament
(21-8, won last 9)
» AVCA ranking: NR
» NCAA RPI: 110
» NCAA tournament record: 0-1
» T25 NCAA statistical rankings: Team — None Player — Whitney Phillips (seventh kills 4.81 and sixth points 5.38).
» Conference finish: Big Sky champion
(21-8, won last 2)
» AVCA ranking: 11
» NCAA RPI: 37
» NCAA tournament record: 28-13
» T25 NCAA statistical rankings: Team — Hitting-11th (.288) Player — Jenna Hagglund (10th assists 11.81), Bianca Rowland (11th hitting .403), Kindra Carlson (22nd points 4.82).
» Conference finish: Fifth Pac-10
(23-9, lost last 2)
» AVCA Ranking: 23
» NCAA RPI: 39
» NCAA tournament record: 12-10
» T25 NCAA statistical rankings: Team — Kills-23rd (14.2) Player — Alex Hunt (14th kills 4.41 and 12th points 5.04)
» Conference finish: Fourth Big 10