Their lofty season-long expectations were matched by their selection-show surroundings on Sunday.
Hawaii will be home for the first week of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013 as the Rainbow Wahine learned of their seed (12) and first-round opponent (Northern Colorado) during a watch party at a Nuuanu high-rise.
The cheers began when seeing “Hawaii” on the list of top-16 seeds. It continued through the revealing of the bracket, with West Coast Conference champion San Diego (24-5) and the Pac-12’s Washington State (23-9) joining the Big Sky champion Bears in Honolulu this week.
And there was applause when fellow Big West members Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara were announced as at-large selections, the Mustangs (20-8) facing Georgia at third-seeded Stanford and the Gauchos (22-5) taking on Texas State at second-seeded Texas. It is the first time the Big West has had three teams in the NCAA tournament since 2013, also the last time that the Rainbow Wahine hosted in the postseason.
“I’m super excited because we’re hosting and we’ll be playing back in the ‘Stan,’ ” Wahine captain Norene Iosia said about returning to the Stan Sheriff Center for the first time since her senior-night festivities on Nov. 22. “We’re finally home, don’t have to fly, and the team is pretty excited about that.
“It’s been a high after winning the Big West (title), practices have been way better. It’s all been a bit overwhelming, but we’re very happy.”
Hawaii was raring to go at Sunday morning’s practice despite a bit of a late night at the Warrior football game, where the Wahine were recognized on the field at halftime.
“They were already warmed up before I got there this morning,” Hawaii coach Robyn Ah Mow said. “Practice was good.
“We’ve got good teams coming in. I don’t know anything about Northern Colorado, but they’re in the tournament and probably pretty tough. The other two teams are well-coached, I know their coaches, and that (first-round) match will be a good one.
“It’s awesome. It’s a boost to be at home with our crowd. Hopefully they’ll come out and support the seniors again.”
Two-day ticket packages go on sale Wednesday, coincidentally the birthday of former Wahine coach Dave Shoji.
Hawaii’s last regular-season home match was a sellout, the 15th for the Wahine program in the 25-year history of the arena and the first since 2013.
“I was really sad senior night because I thought we might not play in the ‘Stan’ again,” junior hitter Brooke Van Sickle said. “I love playing there. I feel like it will be sold out again. Why wouldn’t people want to come?
“Personally I believe when you host you have a better road to go to the national championships. It’s a really good opportunity for us. I think we’ve gotten a lot better since the beginning of the season.”
Hawaii opened the year with a five-set victory over San Diego in the Hawaiian Airlines Classic on Aug. 30. If the Wahine see the Toreros again, “I’m sure San Diego has gotten better, but I think we’re a lot better, too,” Van Sickle said. “Our team was really new then and we have more chemistry now. We’re excited to get back in the gym.”
Van Sickle is in the unique position, having been on the Oregon team last season when Hawaii was sent to the subregional hosted by the Ducks. The Wahine lost in a reverse sweep to Baylor, 3-2, and the Bears then lost to the Ducks 3-2 in the second round. Oregon lost in the elite eight to eventual national runner-up Nebraska.
On Sunday, top-ranked Baylor was named the overall No. 1 seed followed by No. 2 Texas, No. 3 Stanford and No. 4 Wisconsin.
Barring upsets, the top four seeds will host the third and fourth rounds; otherwise the highest remaining seed in each of the four regions will host. If there are no upsets in Hawaii’s region, the Wahine would travel to Wisconsin.
The Wahine’s subregional is the only one with three teams ranked in the current national coaches poll: No. 18 Hawaii, No. 20 San Diego and No. 25 Washington State. Hawaii has missed the NCAA tournament once (1992) and is making its 27th consecutive appearance, 38th overall.
Hawaii has wins over seven teams in the field of 64: Washington (24-6, at-large), Missouri (21-7, at-large), UCLA (18-11, at-large), Denver (23-8, Summit League champion), St. John’s (22-11, Big East champion); Cal Poly and UCSB. The Wahine lost to top-seeded Baylor in Waco, Texas, on Sept. 22.
Northern Colorado has two assistant coaches who were born and raised in Hawaii: Jon Haruguchi and Pi‘i Aiu. The Bears also came to Honolulu for the 2011 NCAA tournament and were swept by Hawaii in the first round.
NCAA WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT
First and second rounds At Stan Sheriff Center
>> Friday San Diego (24-5) vs. Washington State (23-9), 4:30 p.m. Northern Colorado (26-7) at Hawaii (24-5), 7 p.m.
>> Saturday Friday’s winners, 7 p.m.
>> Ticket packages: Wednesday, 9 a.m.
>> Individual tickets: Friday, 9 a.m.
>> Information: 956-4482