Warriors make history in UH men's athletics
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. For one magical night, the world belonged to the dreamers.
It belonged to University of Hawai'i men's volleyball coach Mike Wilton, who parlayed a $5,000 annual recruiting budget and long hours of preparation into last night's pulsating 29-31, 31-29, 30-21, 30-24 victory over top-ranked Pepperdine in the title match of the NCAA Championships in Rec Hall.
It belonged to outside hitter Costas Theocharidis, who hammered 19 kills, including a thunderous shot for aloha point, to secure the first men's team championship in the school's history.
It belonged to Eyal Zimet and Vernon Podlewski, both of whom wore out their knee pads making diving passes to start the Warriors' offense, and to Dejan Miladinovic and Delano Thomas in the middle, where many Pepperdine shots suffered sudden deaths.
And it belonged to embattled setter Kimo Tuyay, who controlled the ebb and flow of the match but, in the end, could not control his emotions, falling to his knees and spilling tears on the SportCourt.
"This feeling ... it's just too much," Tuyay said. "We dreamed we could win a national title, but until now, it was just a dream. Look at our team. We don't have 6-8 guys. We're short, but we play hard and we play together and we do what we need to do."
The Waves' average starter is 6 feet 5 1/2; UH's is 6-2. The Waves had won the three previous meetings between the teams, including last week's four-game victory in the final of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. The only trophy the Warriors won all season was the one awarded last night, one that Miladinovic could not stop kissing.
In the celebration after the match, Miladinovic, a fifth-year senior from Serbia, pointed to his new NCAA championship watch and demanded of his teammates, "What time is it?"
When nobody responded, Miladinovic yelled, "It's about (bleeping) time!"
Later, he said, "I'm in a dream I can't describe. I still don't believe it. I have to take a cold shower, pinch myself and wake up."
Wilton, an ex-Marine, started to get smoke in his eyes.
"I'm real happy for us," said Wilton, who completed his 10th season at UH. This was UH's third appearance in the NCAA final four and second in the title match.
"People always ask me, 'Do you ever get excited?' " Wilton recalled. "Well, yes, I do, and right now, I'm real excited, even if I don't show it. I guess I'm feeling a great sense of happiness and joy and peace."
And satisfaction, particularly after the Warriors rebounded from the loss in Game 1. The Waves are the nation's most aggressive servers, with everyone but middle hitter Chris Van Reusen firing jump serves. Pepperdine coach Marv Dunphy again gave his players the green light to rip serves.
But while 6-foot-8 Brad Keenan, the nation's Player of the Year, forced the Warriors to receive serves with four passers instead of the usual three, "we weren't intimidated," said Podlewski, UH's 5-foot-8 libero.
In volleyball's version of the rope-a-dope, the Warriors prepared to absorb the Waves' best shots. "We were like, 'Bring it on,' " Podlewski said. "No matter how hard they served, we were going to keep the ball alive."
Once, Podlewski made a sprawling one-armed pass, as the Waves watched with dazed astonishment. With their fastballs ineffective, the Waves soon lost their control, committing a season-high 19 service errors.
"It wasn't that we were just serving rockets and missing," Dunphy said. "Even when we let up, we made errors. That's just the way it goes."
With workable passes, Tuyay was able to evenly distribute the offense. During each of the last three matches, Tuyay was lifted after struggling to read the opposing block.
"I wanted to pitch a complete game," Tuyay said. "I didn't want a relief pitcher coming in and bailing me out. I was talking to Tino (Reyes, UH's strategist) the whole time. We figured out which hitter was hot and who we should set on isolation plays. It was an easy decision. Tony (Ching) was hot. Eyal was hot. Costas was hot. Everybody was hot."
Theocharidis usually carries the offensive load. But this time, Tuyay gave in to the pleading Ching, who repeatedly asked for "pipe" sets, in which he swings from the middle of the back row off a four-step takeoff. At 6 feet 2, Ching can be smothered at the net by taller blockers. Off pipe plays, he can use his 40-inch vertical leap to navigate shots past blocks.
Ching finished with 17 kills in 27 swings, hitting .519, and provided key shots when the Waves narrowed four-point deficits in Games 3 and 4.
"Kimo did a great job," Ching said. "He put the ball where it had to be. He did his part."
Ching was not part of the original blueprint, but Wilton said, "Going to people comes from the school of, 'What's happening now.' ... We like to make sure somebody who is putting away a lot of balls for us doesn't get bored."
Said Theocharidis: "Sometimes it's hard for me to hit all of the balls. It's nice for people to step up and take the pressure off of me. They've done it a bunch of times for me this year."
Theocharidis still finished with enough opportunities to win the award as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
While the Waves' trifecta of Keenan, Lance Walker and Fred Winters eventually wore down, succumbing to the Warriors' active block, Theocharidis remained strong. At 29-24 in the fourth game, Tuyay fed Theocharidis on the left side. Theocharidis treated the volleyball as if it were a pinata.
"I was so ready to finish the game," said Theocharidis, who launched the winning cross-court shot. "I was so glad I killed the ball. I hammered it. I wanted there to be no doubt."
That triggered a wild on-court celebration. Tuyay raced around the court, tore off his jersey and then fell to his knees. Miladinovic bear-hugged Theocharidis, then piggy-backed Zimet. Later, the Warriors were given sections of the SportCourt, which is comprised of Lego-like, half-inch-think plastic squares.
"This is one of the greatest days in Hawai'i athletic history," UH president Evan Dobelle said. "The entire state has to be proud. It's big time. Hawai'i is big time."
In the locker room, the players posed for pictures and doused each other with bottled water.
"Everything hurts now, but it's worth it," Theocharidis said. "It's unreal what we went through. We're warriors. We worked so hard this year, and it paid off. We caught the whale, and it was a big whale."
The UH roster includes players from seven countries. "We're the United Nations," Miladinovic said. "Hawai'i is a multi-national community, and I think we represent it. We have people from all over the globe. But we speak the same language, the language of volleyball."
Said Ching: "We have so many different kind of players, but we all wear a black and green jersey with 'Hawai'i' on the front. We represent Hawai'i. We did this for the state of Hawai'i."
Miladinovic noted this central Pennsylvania area is referred to as "Happy Valley."
"After this," Miladinovic said, "Manoa Valley is Happy Valley, too."
Hawai'i's National Championship season
DATE OPPONENT W/L
Jan. 8 Loyola-Chicago L, 4-1
Jan. 9 Loyola-Chicago W, 3-0
Outrigger Hotels Invitational
Jan. 17 Penn State W, 3-0
Jan. 18 Lewis W, 3-2
Jan. 19 UCLA L, 0-3
Jan. 29 *at Stanford W, 3-2
Jan. 30 *at Stanford W, 3-0
Feb. 1 *at Pacific W, 3-1
Feb. 2 *at Pacific W, 3-1
Feb. 8 *UC San Diego W, 3-0
Feb. 9 *UC San Diego W, 3-0
Feb. 20 *Long Beach State L, 1-3
Feb. 22 *Long Beach State W, 3-0
March 1 *at USC W, 3-0
March 2 *at USC W, 3-0
March 12 *at Santa Barbara W, 3-0
March 13 *at Santa Barbara L, 0-3
March 15 *at CS Northridge W, 3-1
March 16 *at CS Northridge W, 3-0
March 22 *at Pepperdine L, 1-3
March 23 *at Pepperdine L, 1-3
March 29 *UC Irvine W, 3-0
March 30 *UC Irvine W, 3-0
April 5 *UCLA W, 3-1
April 6 *UCLA W, 3-0
April 12 *Brigham Young W, 3-0
April 13 *Brigham Young L, 0-3
Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament
First Round April 20 Long Beach State W, 3-0
April 25 Santa Barbara W, 3-1
April 27 Pepperdine L, 1-3
NCAA final four
at University Park, Pa.
May 2 Penn State W, 3-1
May 4 Pepperdine W, 3-1
*Mountain Pacific Sports Federation match