comscore Brewing up strength | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Brewing up strength

    "Chemistry. Nobody really steps on anyone’s toes

Brewing is an exact science. Creating that perfect cup of coffee is an art.

Any barista worth that extra shot would stake her or his reputation on it.

But the ultimate challenge is developing the quintessential playing schedule, one where the blend is both pleasing to fans and the NCAA volleyball tournament selection committee while not double-pumping a team’s success off the court — the challenges facing one of the best baristas in the business.

Hawaii’s Dave Shoji, four victories from becoming the all-time winningest coach in Division I women’s volleyball, knows that. Lives that. Drinks that.

He also realizes that no matter how good his product, it comes down to a matter of taste. As well as factors over which he has no control.

Take the computer-generated Ratings Percentage Index as the prime — seemingly omnipotent — example. Not only is a team rated on its weekly win-loss performance, but also on how that team’s opponents fare.

For Shoji, making his preconference schedule is just like making his coffee: with a little sugar, with a little milk. And a lot of guesswork, particularly when gauging how strong an opponent — as well as his team — will be a year or two out.

"It’s tough; you can’t always predict how someone is going to do," said Shoji, who opens his 39th season Friday with defending national champion Texas. "We always want to have very competitive teams in our tournaments. And you have to look at the teams who want to come out.

"They don’t have to all be top 20; anyone in the top 20-50 will be competitive. And then, with any sort of luck, they’ll have the season you thought they’d have."

Or not. The five-set loss to California (15-16, 9-11 Pac-12) the second week of last season, one of only two defeats for UH heading into the NCAA tournament, likely cost the Rainbow Wahine (27-3, 18-0 Big West) a top-16 RPI and hosting of the first and second rounds.

That defeat was too much to be overcome by the 3-1 win over Stanford the opening weekend. The Cardinal finished No. 1 in the final RPI despite being eliminated in the elite eight.

Cal was the NCAA runner-up in 2010 and ranked No. 1 for part of 2011, but "they had a terrible year last year and that hurt us," Shoji said. "They didn’t schedule tough in the preseason, had some injuries, but you can’t predict or control that."

Nor can the Wahine control the strength of their conference.

The return to the Big West — once one of the premier conferences in the sport — was thought to be a plus over being in the rapidly weakening Western Athletic Conference.

Hawaii went undefeated in the Big West, considering itself fortunate to do so after needing to pull out five five-set matches. The Big West, second to only the Pac-12 in the number of NCAA volleyball championships (14 to 6), once again was a one-bid league.

"And if we hadn’t won the conference, who knows if we’d have gotten in?" said Shoji, whose titles in 1982 and ’83 came as an independent. "That’s scary to think about.

"The conference is supposed to be better this year. I certainly hope it will be. We all need significant wins over big-time teams from big-time conferences for our RPIs to go up."

But how tough of an out-of-conference schedule? It’s become as much an art as a science, an inexact science. Unlike the RPI in college basketball, away matches aren’t not counted any differently than home ones. Still, the Wahine will make a rare nonconference road trek to Wichita State to compete in the Shocker Classic prior to opening Big West play. It’s not the tournament field it could have been — No. 5 Washington had been mentioned as a possibility — but it still has two ranked opponents in No. 24 Wichita State and No. 25 Creighton.

"You do have to be very careful in choosing who is on your (preconference) schedule, try to schedule as smart as you can," Shoji said. "Unless you win your conference in a mid-major, there might be just one or two other teams (from the conference) to get in. Or maybe just the one.

"I do try to get a highly ranked team for each of our tournaments. Texas might be the highest (RPI) this whole season and, to be honest, may not lose at all. It’s a challenging opening tournament for us, and a challenging opening night. But we’re not going to back down from any challenge."

Which will be bigger than creating that perfect cuppa Joe, including a skinny, half-caf, upside down, extra hot, with room. Order up.

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