Of all the planned homecoming activities this week for Hawaii, it is the unofficial one that the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team hopes to pull off successfully. That would be the block party inside the Stan Sheriff Center.
No. 8 Hawaii, the top blocking team in the country, hosts a pair of critical matches against the teams right behind the Rainbow Wahine in the Big West standings: CSUN and Long Beach State.
First up Friday are the Matadors (4-12, 3-1) who have more than rebounded from a tough nonconference schedule (1-11 when opening with 12 road matches) to contend at the top of the conference. But CSUN had its perfect Big West record spoiled last Saturday when being swept at Cal Poly with the host Mustangs also handing The Beach its first conference loss in four the night before.
"They lost a lot from last year so we kind of knew they’d be inexperienced at the start," Hawaii coach Dave Shoji said of the Matadors, who lost six starters from last season’s squad. "But they seem to have gotten better as the season has gone one.
"They still have an outstanding player in (senior hitter Cieana) Stinson, who has always been really good against us. We’re going to have to play hard and play well against them."
More of a concern for the Wahine are how well — health-wise — they are. Two starters went down during Hawaii’s first road trip of the season: setter Tayler Higgins with a sprained left ankle on Friday and sophomore hitter Kalei Greeley with a sprained left knee on Saturday.
Both practiced Wednesday but, of the two, Greeley appears to be further along in the recovery process.
"We’d like to be at full strength," Shoji said. "We may or may not be."
If not, sophomore Kendra Koelsch will set, as she did for most of Friday’s sweep at Cal State Fullerton and all of Saturday’s sweep at UC Riverside. Greeley was cautiously optimistic about being ready but Hawaii has a number of options if she isn’t, including freshman McKenna Granato who replaced Greeley for much of Saturday’s match.
"We’re coming off a really good week," Greeley said. "The team responded really well to dealing with the injuries and I’m proud of them for that. It would have been really easy to have played down, something we have done before, but we didn’t and that says a lot about us.
"Hopefully, we’ll take last week’s fire into this weekend and play as well as we did last week. What we want to do through the entire conference (schedule) is to play to the best of our abilities."
|BIG WEST VOLLEYBALL
Stan Sheriff Center
>> Friday, 7 p.m.
>> CSUN (4-12, 3-1) at No. 8 Hawaii (14-1, 4-0)
>> Sunday, 5 p.m.
>> Long Beach State (14-4, 4-1) at Hawaii
>> TV: OC Sports (Ch. 16)
>> Radio: KKEA 1420- AM
Nationally, it has shown in impressive blocking numbers. Helped by 12 blocks in both matches last week, Hawaii is leading the county at 3.27 blocks per set and senior middle Olivia Magill, the conference leader in blocks, is ninth nationally (1.51 bps).
"We’ve been working hard on it, it’s an important part of the game," Magill said. "I think everyone has gotten better. I know I’ve gotten better with read-blocking, reading what’s going on behind the block.
"We need to keep winning, keep on that roll we have been on and keep playing together."
Being No. 1 in blocks has been a surprise to Shoji.
"I guess because I think we should block every ball and it’s a little frustrating when we don’t," he said. "Obviously, the numbers speak for themselves."
Hawaii has the numbers across the board in the Big West, leading in six of seven categories. The exception is dig average, in part due to the blocking which is preventing the ball from being dug on the Wahine’s side of the court.
With his young team — read that as up to four freshmen starters in some rotations — CSUN coach Jeff Stork said the emphasis remains on his side of the court.
"We’re still in a position where we need to focus on ourselves and not so much the opponent," said Stork, who has used three setters this season in freshman Erin Indermill, sophomore Lauren Conati,and junior college transfer Maddie Leiphardt. "Hawaii is such a great environment to play volleyball. They get the biggest crowds in the nation so we have to enjoy that environment."
Hawaii leads the series 16-2. The Wahine has lost their last two trips to the Matadome.