CHEVRON RAINBOW WAHINE INVITATIONAL
If fans needed a double-shot to get into the season, here it is. Hawaii opens with the preseason No. 1 for the first time since 2008 with defending national champion Texas (29-4, 15-1 Big 12). The Longhorns return five starters and their libero (HPA’s Sarah Palmer) from their second NCAA title team, and first since they upset defending champion Hawaii in 1988.
UTEP (16-13, 10-6 C-USA), with new coach and former Texas player Holly Watts, was picked to finish fifth in Conference USA. Perennial West Coast Conference power San Diego (21-7, 13-3 WCC) also has five starters back and its libero, senior C’era Oliveria, a teammate of Palmer’s at HBA. The Toreros were picked to finish second in the WCC. The USD match will be one of two Sunday matches that Wahine sophomore hitter Tai Manu-Olevao will sit out for religious reasons.
HAWAIIAN AIRLINES WAHINE CLASSIC
This is the weekend Shoji is expected to pass retired UCLA coach Andy Banachowski for most wins (1,106) in the sport.
He needs four and, depending on how opening week goes, it could come as early as the Santa Clara match. The Broncos (20-12, 9-7 WCC), picked sixth in the West Coast Conference, open with eight straight road matches and a young team (nine freshmen, including Punahou’s Taylor Dayton). Former WAC rival New Mexico State (22-11 12-6), with always entertaining coach Mike Jordan, is picked to win the conference. And then there’s 12th-ranked UCLA, with former UH associate coach Mike Sealy and former Wahine reserve setter Monica Stauber. The Bruins (23-8, 14-6 Pac-12), picked fifth in the league, have played the Wahine every season since UH established its program in 1974; the Wahine lead the series 36-34.
The big draw will be the big serve of former Wahine Jane Croson, who was given her release to play at Arizona (16-15, 12-7) picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12. But that was before Croson — second in kills, third in aces last season — was declared eligible.
Northwestern (16-15 5-15 Big Ten) returns five starters from a team looking to improve its ninth-place finish in the tough Big Ten. Portland State (12-11, 17-3 Big Sky), picked to win the conference, returns Big Sky Libero of the Year Kasi Clark, who set the school’s single-season digs record (635) last season as a sophomore.
The field is not sexy, but there’s substance. No. 24 Wichita State is picked to win the Missouri Valley, considered the top mid-major conference. No. 25 Creighton is moving to the revamped Big East. South Dakota (14-14, 8-8 Summit) was picked to finish fourth in the Summit League; the Coyotes “assured” Shoji they’d be better than last year when ending with an RPI of 161 (still higher than the Big West’s UC Irvine (180), Cal Poly (232) and UC Riverside (261).
BIG WEST CONFERENCE
The conference should be better. It has to be better as it tries to rebuild from a one-NCAA-bid league and its power reputation from the 1980s and 1990s when three schools (Hawaii, Pacific and Long Beach State) combined for eight national titles between 1982 and 1998, the two decades prior to the RPI-driven selection process. The Beach, picked to finish second to Hawaii, expects junior All-American Haleigh Hampton back after missing last year with a shoulder injury. Jeff Stork should have Cal State Northridge again in top-three contention his entire lineup returning, including the BWC’s leading blocker in junior Casey Hinger (1.33 bpg). Coaching changes at UC Santa Barbara (Nicole Lantagne Welch for legend Kathy Gregory) and UC Riverside (former Washington setter and assistant Michelle Patton) may lead to improvement but likely not immediate, other than perhaps battling it out for fourth with UC Davis. More likely, the Gauchos and Highlanders will keep UC Irvine, Cal Poly and Cal State Fullerton company in the bottom half of the conference, which saw Pacific depart for the West Coast Conference.