The World Cup has its “Group of Death.”
The NCAA tournament has the Hawaii subregional.
This week’s episode of Survivor: Volleyball Island has three nationally ranked teams with RPIs inside the Top 50, matching the number of conference champions that will be in the Stan Sheriff Center for Friday’s first-round matches.
The opening-round matchups between Towson against American and Louisville versus Samford have nothing on what kicks off Friday’s play when West Coast champion and 20th-ranked San Diego (24-5) battles No. 23 Washington State (23-9) at 4:30 p.m. Many around the country agree that it is the toughest first round out of the 32 being played this week.
And, for good measure, Big Sky champion Northern Colorado (26-7) faces No. 18 Hawaii (24-3), the Big West champion seeded 12th, in Friday’s second match. It reprises the first-round pairing from 2011 at the Sheriff Center when the Rainbow Wahine swept the Bears.
The reward for surviving the third round is a likely trip to Wisconsin, the top seed (four) in the region that has Illinois State, UCLA and Notre Dame coming in for the opening rounds.
“Hawaii got a tough one,” Northern Colorado assistant coach Pi’i Aiu said. “When we saw the bracket (during the selection show), it was ‘Holy cow. That’s a tough out (to the third round).’
“I’m glad our kids will get to experience Hawaii’s great volleyball environment. I’ve told them it’s a tough place to play but the crowd is terrific, cheers for good volleyball. It’s kind of like a bowl game for us.”
Aiu (Kamehameha), the former Colorado coach, is one of two assistants born and raised in Hawaii on Lindsey Oates’ staff. In his fourth season is Jon Haruguchi (Punahou).
“This was the destination the team was hoping for, we have about 6 inches of snow right now,” said Oates, in her 15th season at the Greeley, Colo., school. “We knew we’d pull a ranked team and knew there was a good chance it would be Hawaii.
“We’ve been looking at quite a bit of film, see what kind of lineups they have. They are solid at every position, have five attackers and are well-rounded. But it’s always about what we do. I like how hard we’re playing. We didn’t play that well in our conference tournament. We were really aggressive but almost reckless. We’re not going to be able to give away points and hope to win.”
The Bears went from sixth place last season to winning the regular season (17-1) and conference tournament titles. Oates said Aiu has been a huge asset in his first year, “his calm demeanor has been a great presences on our bench,” she said. “We had a talented team last year but it was a roller coaster. Pi’i is laid back, has helped us ride the waves during matches, keeping the players calm and not panicking.”
“This team has a high level of belief in themselves,” Aiu said. “The fact that they went from sixth to 19-1 (overall) in conference is a testament to the confidence they’ve been playing with.
“We’re fairly balanced, a good defensive team, but not a big team. We’ll see what happens. Hawaii seems like the normal Hawaii team. Physical, good defensively, some size. We have our work cut out for us.”
A look at the teams who are all coached by women, the only subregional that can make that claim:
No. 18 Hawaii (24-3, RPI 11)
The Wahine are making their 27th consecutive NCAA appearance, 38th overall, having only missed the 1992 tournament. Former Hawaii All-American setter Robyn Ah Mow is in her third year as head coach and last week was named Big West co-coach of the year.
The Wahine are led by Big West player of the year Norene Iosia, the senior playing setter and outside hitter. She ranks in the top 10 on the program career lists in aces (No. 4 135), assists (No. 9 2,080) and digs (No. 10 1,137).
Hawaii dominated the all-conference selections with hitter Hanna Hellvig named freshman of the year. The Swedish national was joined on the first team by Iosia, freshman middle Amber Igiede and junior middle Sky Williams. Senior hitter McKenna Ross and junior hitter Brooke Van Sickle were honorable mention.
The Wahine, winning the Big West with a 14-2 record, are riding an 11-match winning streak. This is the 19th time they are hosting the opening round of the NCAAs and first since 2013.
Northern Colorado (26-7, RPI 74)
The Bears won the Big Sky regular season (17-1) and tournament titles, earning their 12th straight victory when rallying past Weber State in five sets. Sophomore hitter Kailey Jo Ince was named the tourney MVP and junior hitter Taylor Muff all-tournament.
Northern Colorado dominated the all-conference awards with 15th-year head coach Lindsey Oates winning coach of the year, junior setter Daisy Schultz the MVP and three first-team picks in Schultz, Ince and Muff.
The Bears are making their fifth NCAA appearance since moving to Division I status in 2003 and, for the second time in five seasons, the NCAA opener is against Hawaii in Honolulu.
No. 20 San Diego (24-5, RPI 26)
The Toreros opened the year 2-4 with a five-set loss to the Wahine and 3-1 loss to then-No. 13 Washington in the Hawaiian Airlines Classic, followed by Nebraska 3-2 at home, and at UC Santa Barbara 3-1. USD lost just once more (at Pepperdine 3-0 en route to going 17-1 to win its 11th West Coast tittle. The run included taking the series against BYU for the first time since 2011.
Three of the WCC’s major awards went to the Toreros: senior Anna Newsome (setter of year), opposite Grace Frohling (freshman of year) and Jennifer Petrie her sixth coach of the year in 21 seasons on the Presidio. Newsome, Frohling, senior hitter Thana Fayad and senior middle Megan Jacobson were named to the first team, sophomore hitter Katie Lukes second team and sophomore libero Annie Benbow and freshman middle Lauren Turner honorable mention.
The 6-foot-5 Frohling did not play against Hawaii on Aug. 30 but did in the other two HAL matches.
Washington State (23-9, RPI 49)
The Cougars are in the NCAA tournament for the 15th time and fourth in a row. The only at-large team in Honolulu finished fifth (12-8) in the Pac-12, which sent six teams to the NCAAs.
WSU is coming off Saturday’s five-set upset in Seattle against rival Washington, the first time the Cougars have swept the series with the Dawgs since 2001. They also swept the series with USC for the first time since 1986.
Middle Magda Jehlarova was named the conference freshman of the year, a first for the Cougar program. The Czech Republic native was the only freshman on the first team.
Jehlarova, who led the conference in hitting (.366), was joined on the all-freshman team by setter Hannah Pukis. Senior libero Alexis Dirige was honorable mention.
Jen Stinson Greeny is in her ninth season on the Palouse and has been a part of 11 of WSU’s 15 NCAA appearances as either a coach or a player. She was the seventh Cougar to reach 1,000 kills and ranks fourth all-time in block assists and total blocks, and sixth in solos.
Washington State leads the series with San Diego 3-0.
Friday has been designated a “White-Out Night” with fans encouraged to wear white … Some 6,000 two-day ticket packages have been sold. Single-day tickets go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.
NCAA WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL
Stan Sheriff Center
>> Friday’s first round No. 20 San Diego (24-5) vs. No. 23 Washington State (23-9), 4:30 p.m. Northern Colorado (26-7) vs. No. 18 Hawaii (24-3), 7 p.m.
>> Saturday’s second round Friday’s winners, 7 p.m.
>> Series: Hawaii leads Northern Colorado 1-0, leads San Diego 4-2, leads Washington State 4-0.
>> TV: TBA
>> Radio: 1420-AM/92.7-FM.
>> Two-day ticket packages: Lower level, $44; upper level, $32 (adult), $26 (seniors 65-plus) and $14 (ages 4-high school and college with ID)
>> Single tickets: On sale Friday, 9 a.m.