EUGENE, Ore. >> Big buy-in and bigger payoff.
That was the message that Hawaii carried out of the Matthew Knight Arena after Thursday’s NCAA tournament first-round defeat to Baylor. For the eight returning Rainbow Wahine, 2019 began even before Friday’s return trip to Honolulu.
“As the coaches said to us, it starts now,” said freshman middle Kamalei Krug, who saw one front-row rotation in Set 3 of the five-set loss to the Bears. “We have a lot of time to prepare for next year.
“I know that I learned a lot, learned what hard work is, what fight is, how to get back up after being down, and I’m hoping to learn more. We know we went down fighting and that will keep us going from now on.”
Krug, outside hitter Trinity Castaneda and defensive specialist Janelle Gong were the only three freshmen on the roster for Hawaii (18-9). Five others also are expected back, led by three-time all-conference player Norene Iosia. Iosia, splitting time on the outside and in her normal setting spot, ended the year with her fifth triple-double (11 kills, 14 assists, 11 digs).
“I have no words for her,” second-year coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos said. “She sets, she hits, she digs, she blocks. For her to do what she does … she doesn’t hit in practice, only hits during the last part of warm-ups (before a match).
“She’s just a volleyball player. Her volleyball IQ is high, her fight is high. She is awesome.”
Iosia and hitters Kirsten Sibley and McKenna Ross will make up the 2019 senior class. Incoming juniors are defensive specialist Rika Okino and middle Sky Williams — the latter had season highs in solo blocks (two) and assist blocks (five) against Baylor.
While Hawaii is bringing in at least five high-level newcomers — four have officially signed — the Wahine will be missing the offense, defense and leadership from the seven who wore their uniforms for the last time on Thursday.
Senior hitter McKenna Granato, one of 20 Wahine to reach the 1,000-kill mark, accounted for nearly 25 percent of the kills and aces. Her 1,055 kills leave her at No. 19 in the UH record book.
Also leaving her mark on the record book is senior libero Tita Akiu, one of the three one-and-done transfers this season. Her 34 digs against Baylor bettered the mark for digs in a five-set match set by Melissa Villaroman’s 33 against Fresno State in 2002. Her single-season total of 465 lifted her to No. 4, passing Teee Williams (437), Sarah Mendoza (437) and Elizabeth Ka’aihue (444) with her effort on Thursday.
Hawaii will miss the steady presence of senior Casey Castillo. She and Granato were the only four-year players on the roster. Also adding to the void is the graduation of middles Natasha Burns and Sarah Liva and opposite Angel Gaskin.
The biggest loss may be an intangible one. Senior Faith Ma’afala was the heart of the team, her leadership going beyond the 10 double-doubles in her first full-time duty at setter.
With several scholarships remaining and walk-on opportunities available, Hawaii is hoping to find another setter to train under Iosia, another defensive specialist, and height and power in the middle and on the outside.
On Friday, Ah Mow-Santos wasn’t ready to leave 2018 behind just yet.
“I’ve always been an underdog on short teams,” said the two-time All-America setter for Hawaii. “As I’ve told the girls, if you got the will and the heart, you can do anything. You can beat bigger teams.
“I’m not surprised about us being right there with a big Baylor team. They followed the game plan, they had the focus. We came up short. But from the first day to the last, we improved a lot.”
Ah Mow-Santos was emotional during Thursday’s postgame press conference, saying what meant the most was how the players had bought into her coaching style, her vision of the culture she wanted in the practice gym and on the court.
Friday’s morning light didn’t change things.
“We had a whole bunch of new players come in and believed in what we’re trying to do,” Ah Mow-Santos said. “I told the seniors ‘thank you’ for believing, for trusting a new coach.
“And as I told the rest of them, the new season starts now. Take it seriously. The offseason is when it happens. Focus. Get in shape. Be ready for spring. Be all in.”
Reclaiming the Big West title after two straight runner-up finishes and getting beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament are realistic goals. As well as the mantra: Be better.