COLUMBUS, Ohio >> Where does one start?
How does one begin to connect the random stars that had to align perfectly in order to create the constellation known as #Warriorball21?
It just as easily could have been a lelepio, a comet that streaked through the 2020 sky, disappearing after that final match on March 6. A brilliant burst of promise that burned out after Hawaii and Brigham Young split their two men’s volleyball matches at the Stan Sheriff Center, leaving each with one loss and one burning question: Who was No. 1?
That both the Warriors and Cougars squads remained nearly intact over the past 428 days was a gift, courtesy of the NCAA decision a year ago Friday extending the eligibility of the athletes whose season was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. It also took a commitment from each school’s administration, compliance office and — particularly in the case of Hawaii — a financial commitment from the community to cover the cost of schooling for the returning “super seniors,” several of whom were already into master’s degree or post-graduate certificate programs.
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Then there was the huge commitment from Colton Cowell, Patrick Gasman and Rado Parapunov to return, putting on hold their lives, their potential pro playing careers and making what Gasman says is “real adult money.”
The trio came back — as did 2020 senior James Anastassiades as a graduate assistant/team manager — with blind faith last fall that somehow there would be a season this spring.
“The biggest question was, ‘Do we deserve that one year, how can we best help the program?’” said Parapunov, who has not been back to his native Bulgaria since Christmas break of 2019. “The decision had to be not only good for us but what was good for the program. We wanted to repay the fans, the state of Hawaii for everything they’ve given us.
“Twenty years from now? I can look back and say we got a season. I got to enjoy my last year in Hawaii, to learn to appreciate things more than before. Things can get taken away that you have no say in.”
And so it came to be that what many expected would happen last May at the NCAA championship tournament hosted by George Mason in Fairfax, Va. — that of Hawai’i and BYU meeting in the national final — was finally played 410 miles away at Ohio State’s Covelli Center.
Parapunov, the newly crowned AVCA National Player of the Year, did have a say in Saturday’s outcome. A loud one.
His team-high 13 kills meant he was in double digits in all 18 matches this season. His three consecutive aces late in the second set rattled what had been a shaky BYU serve-receive even more, with the Warriors pulling away at 23-14.
Parapunov walked off with the final award of his mega-award career, that of national tournament MVP. But all he could do during the postmatch press conference was stare at the NCAA trophy, tapping it gently to confirm it was real, and saying, “I’m so happy that my last game for the University of Hawaii was a win.
“This is for the state of Hawaii. We got it. We hope we can see you … in person.”
Just as the Hawaii teams before them, these Warriors carried not just the pride but also the weight of representing an entire state. “Warrior Nation” wasn’t able to come out in full force due to attendance limitations imposed by the NCAA, but the ti-leaf-waving “Let’s Go ‘Bows” crowd clearly outnumbered the blue pompom shaking “B-Y-U” fans.
Gasman said his reason for returning was a championship ring, of course, but “it was seeing our team rise above it, all the ups and downs of this year … it inspired me to play my heart out for my team and for the state of Hawaii.”
Gasman is the winningest player in program history, having played 124 of 125 career matches with a record of 105-19. It seemed fitting, then, that the 6-foot-10 middle not only will get his ring, but also the distinction of earning the final point in the last two wins over BYU. Back on March 6, 2020, his walk-off ace gave the Warriors the five-set marathon; Saturday, his seventh kill was the emphatic punctuation on the sweep.
Saturday was as much about leaving a legacy as it was about leaving with a championship.
“In all honesty, regardless of whether we had won or not tonight, it was worth it to come back,” said Cowell, who added seven kills and three aces. “The truth is, we had fallen in love with playing for the University of Hawaii. We wanted to leave a very powerful legacy just like the one that was left for us.
“There was a deep desire to represent the people who have supported us. I’m sending out a thank you to everyone who supported this team and I’m going to be celebrating like crazy with my teammates. Like I said earlier, this is the best moment of my life.”
There’s been a void in the corner below the catwalk in the Stan Sheriff Center ever since the banner won by the 2002 team was dropped to the floor and stored in 2004. (The NCAA denied the school’s appeal over use of an ineligible player and ordered the championship vacated).
After nearly 20 years, the men again will have a banner next to the four won by the Rainbow Wahine.
The graduating group — which also includes true senior libero Gage Worsley and backup setter Jackson Van Eekeran, a fifth-year junior — leave as one of the most decorated in program history, as well as the winningest (106-19).
Five Warriors were named to the AVCA All-America teams on Monday, four of whom were repeat honorees. Parapunov, Gasman and Worsley were named to the first team. Cowell was selected to the second team for a second year. Sophomore setter Jakob Thelle was an honorable mention honoree.
Parapunov and Worsley became the program’s third and fourth players to earn three first-team awards, joining Costas Theocharidis (four from 2000 to 2003) and Stijn Van Tilburg (2017-19).
The five honors are tied for the most in a single season, along with 2015, 2018, and 2019.
Parapunov also has earned Big West Player of the Week honors five times this season and had a conference-record 15 in his career.
Their hashtag of #unfinishedbusiness is now #businessfinished. Some things are destined to be written in the stars.
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