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Fans honor Warriors’ NCAA volleyball title with drive-by celebration at Manoa

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  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Fans exchanged high-fives with UH volleyball players outside the SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center during Sunday’s drive-by celebrating the Warriors’ NCAA men’s volleyball championship.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Fans exchanged high-fives with UH volleyball players outside the SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center during Sunday’s drive-by celebrating the Warriors’ NCAA men’s volleyball championship.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                A fan waved to the players while approaching the team during Sunday’s drive-by celebration outside the SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A fan waved to the players while approaching the team during Sunday’s drive-by celebration outside the SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center.

The national champion University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team received another award Sunday.

Ben Ayson and Jon Wong presented Warriors coach Charlie Wade with a homemade pro wrestling-style championship belt — the kind more suited for displaying in a trophy case than holding up pants.

It was one of many highlights as at least a thousand UH fans packed into hundreds of cars participated in a drive-by celebration at the Manoa lower campus. It started just minutes after the team had returned from Columbus, Ohio, where the Warriors swept rival BYU on Saturday in the NCAA title match.

“There’s no way we could miss this. We’re big fans,” said Sanae Takaesu, who was in the first car in line.

It was an opportunity for the fans to show their aloha for the team and vice versa, during a championship season where COVID-19 kept them apart.

Wade said the Warriors could not have won the championship without the fans — even though they were not allowed to attend UH matches at SimpliFI Arena at the Stan Sheriff Center since the middle of the 2020 season because of the pandemic.

Mike, Susan and Micah Wada and Yukiko Kawatani came from Kaneohe to toast the team Sunday.

“They were fabulous. They brought their ‘A’ game,” said Susan Wada of the Warriors’ victory Saturday, which fans in Hawaii watched on ESPNU.

This championship is made even sweeter because Hawaii had previously won a national title in men’s volleyball, but that one, in 2002, was vacated by the NCAA due to a rules infraction.

Also, the core of this team bounced back from the bitterness of losing the championship match two years ago to Long Beach State. Then most of last season was lost to the pandemic when UH appeared to be favored for the title.

But the Warriors — many of whom had graduated and could have gone on to the next phase of their lives — never gave up on each other, and neither did the fans.

“This is way past what we were expecting,” outside hitter Colton Cowell said of the reception. “We have some of the best support in the world in men’s volleyball. It means the world to us. It’s a gift, it really is.”

The vacated 2002 championship was UH’s only national title in a men’s team sport. Now this one is. The women’s volleyball team has won four national championships.

“I wasn’t aware it’d been so long,” said Cowell, who is from Makawao, Maui. “I know the culture here. We’re always in position to win championships. It’s just the last, final step has kind of eluded this program for some time. I just feel so grateful to represent Maui and represent Hawaii and bring that title home.”

UH athletic director David Matlin said the Warriors “played for each other, with each other, and embraced the responsibility of representing the university and state with gratitude.”

“I am so proud of this team and hope that our great volleyball fans know this championship is theirs, too,” Matlin added.

Women’s volleyball coach Robyn Ah Mow and men’s basketball coach Eran Ganot were among the convoy. It lasted more than an hour.

The impromptu celebration was smooth, despite contact limitations forced by the pandemic. One creative fan attached a volleyball to a fishing pole so Wade and the players could sign it from a distance.

“There were a bunch of cooks involved in this,” said associate athletic director Vince Baldemor, who helped quickly organize the celebration from the Hawaii end. “It’s too bad we can’t have a parade, but you do the best you can with what you have, and this was our best window for it.”

Plans were being made yesterday for visits with the governor and mayor this week, and perhaps a trolley ride through the streets of Honolulu.

Meanwhile in Hilo, U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele recounted the excitement of the Warriors’ victory in a phone interview. The former UH volleyball player had watched the match anxiously Saturday while texting with teammates Jason Olive and Erik Pichel.

“My college career ended (with a 1997 loss) to BYU, and everyone knows how BYU has been our nemesis, along with UCLA and, in recent years, Long Beach State. So I went into watching very cautiously. But clearly, from the first serve it was evident our boys came to play,” Kahele said. “And it was their time. It’s been a long time coming.”

Kahele said he is returning to Washington, D.C., today, and he plans to recognize the Warriors on the House floor.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity to do that. You can probably expect that,” Kahele said. “I imagine our entire delegation will do something unified. We get the fun times now.”

Kahele was on the team that narrowly lost to UCLA in 1996 in the NCAA championship match.

“I have a great memory of riding through the streets in a trolley, waving to the fans. They still came out in droves to support us even though we lost,” he said. “Now, how do we best celebrate their victory during COVID?”

The fans cruising slowly through lower campus Sunday and the Warriors certainly didn’t let it stop them. Who said long-distance romances can’t survive?

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