The program said it all.
“A Night to Remember”
The opening evening of the Special Events Arena was just that.
It was grand — 10 times a grand in attendance, a crowd that lined up for over an hour before the doors opened at 5:30 p.m. They couldn’t wait to see the inside of the University of Hawaii’s shiny new arena, embrace the vision of late athletic director Stan Sheriff and be part of history.
It was black-tie optional, the option for most being “aloha formal.” But both Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji and television broadcaster John Fink — the event’s emcee — were among those decked out in their finest — rented or not — tuxedos, Shoji wearing his best black ASICS court shoes.
For those who scoffed at the late Donnis Thompson’s idea that women’s volleyball could sell out 7,500-seat Blaisdell Arena … and Hawaii did in the 1970s and ’80s … apologies were owed to the first UH women’s athletic director nearly 3,000-fold. Because on Oct. 21, 1994, the Rainbow Wahine sold out the SEA for their Big West match with San Jose State, the then-capacity crowd of 10,031 setting a national attendance record for the sport.
As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin recounted the day after, “The University of Hawaii threw itself a homecoming party last night and, somewhere between the champagne and cake, a volleyball match broke out.”
Sophomore middle Angelica Ljungqvist put down 12 kills with just one error to hit .647, and was in on nine of the team’s 12 blocks as No. 6 Hawaii overcame opening-night jitters and the Spartans 15-4, 13-15, 15-2, 15-6 in 103 minutes. Sophomore setter Robyn Ah Mow had 47 assists as the Wahine (17-2, 10-1 Big West) hit .333 for their 10th straight victory.
Twenty-five years later, the two All-Americans are teammates on the Hawaii coaching staff, Ah Mow as head coach and Ljungqvist the associate head coach.
“There are a lot of great matches that I got to play in there, but I’d have to say the opening night stands out,” said Ljungqvist, who went on to become the program’s first four-time All-American and the 1996 National Player of the Year. “It’s the first time we got to run out into a packed arena. They had all these festivities going on beforehand, so when we started running out, there’s literally 10,000 people cheering. That was amazing.
“We always had a good crowd to warm up in front of, but to have 10,000 … that was really special.”
Warm is the operative, and kind, word. One hundred and 88 steps away from the SEA was the sweatbox known as Klum Gym, where the Wahine faithful had packed the pullout bleachers for almost 20 years, at times 2,000-plus when the fire marshal wasn’t looking.
“It was such a huge difference,” said Chastity Nobriga, a sophomore in 1994. “There weren’t things falling from the ceiling, the fans weren’t sweating with us. We went from 2,000 sweating fans to 10,000 cool, happy fans with AC.
“I remember we were in the tunnel and they told us we had to do a lap around the court. We had never done that in Klum. You could just feel the energy. It felt like the NBA with the lights, the announcer saying, “This is the University of Hawaii women’s volleyball team” and everyone was standing.
“We were so blessed to have that opportunity to open it.”
That was not a given. To put it politely, there were heated discussions as to whether women’s volleyball or men’s basketball would have the honor.
Coincidentally, the men’s basketball team had played its NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse seven months earlier at Weber State, the Dee Events Center having the same design of what would be renamed the Stan Sheriff Center in 1998.
Women’s volleyball, with its storied past and four national championship banners that would be hung on opening night, won out. Five weeks later, the Rainbow basketball team defeated St. Bonaventure 82-72 in its first game in the new arena on Nov. 25.
Prior to the 8 p.m. first serve, the arena went dark with the spotlight on Fink.
“I am not used to playing in front of 10,000-plus and not being able to see the audience,” said Fink, who later broadcast the match for K5 still in his tuxedo. “It was such a wonderful night, feeling the spirit in the arena, being part of something that was big-time.
“The crowd got a little concerned when the Wahine lost the second game and we’re thinking, ‘No. you can’t lose on the grand opening.’ They didn’t. It was quite a great moment.”
There was a parade of Wahine volleyball alumnae carrying the banners that had hung in Klum Gym. After the new, larger banners were unfurled, 20 former players each presented Shoji with a red rose, marking his 20th season.
After the victory, Shoji cut the large cake and received some of it via a facial by Ah Mow and Ljungqvist.
“When you look up and see every seat filled … what can you say?” said Shoji of the first of 14 arena sellouts prior to his retirement in 2016.
“I was a little afraid that the players would be nervous and distracted by all the fans and ceremony,” said then-associate coach Howard Wallace, the recently retired coach at Schreiner University. “But to their credit they played well and didn’t get caught up in all the hoopla.
“The game-night activities and match with all of those fans there was incredible. I had that chickenskin moment when it all hit me during the national anthem sung by Karen Keawehawai’i. I also remember thinking about Stan Sheriff during the match. He did so much for UH athletics. I wished he could have been there to see how great the event center turned out to be.
(Sheriff died in Jan. 16, 1993, when returning from the NCAA Convention. He was hired as athletic director in 1983).
The recruiting promise made to Therese Crawford was realized that Oct. 21.
“I knew we were getting a new arena,” said Crawford, the lone true freshman in 1994. “But I first had the honor to play in the infamous Klum Gym.
“I don’t remember being nervous (opening night). I was more proud and ready to defend it from whoever came in. I always felt the aloha of the fans, and I think that is why I wasn’t nervous. They were always on our side. We were home. The more people, even a sold-out 10,000, wasn’t more intimidating. It was actually more fun. More of da family was there.”
That night foreshadowed the career that Ah Mow would go on to have, playing on some of the biggest stages when competing professionally, with the U.S. national team and in three Olympics.
“I’m pretty sure there were more people at some of our (UH) games than some of our Olympic games,” Ah Mow said. “Playing in different arenas around the world … this is one of the best places to play. The only thing that measures up to this is Japan, where they get crowds like we get here.
“That first night … just to have all the fans there, to have that many people … it was a cool night.”