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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 22, 2002

Rainbow Wahine open WAC tourney

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

RENO, Nev. — If second-ranked Hawai'i can win five volleyball matches in the next week, coach Dave Shoji believes it will get the opportunity to stay home the first two weeks of the NCAA Tournament.

2002 WAC Tournament

At Virginia Street Gym
Reno, Nev.

Today's Schedule

(All times HST)

10 a.m. — No. 1 HAWAI'I (25-1) vs. No. 8 Louisiana Tech (19-15)

Noon — No. 4 San Jose State (13-14) vs. No. 5 Rice (18-12)

3:30 p.m.— No. 2 Fresno State (22-5) vs. No. 7 SMU (12-16)

5:30 — No. 3 Nevada (19-7) vs. No. 6 UTEP (11-13)

Tomorrow's Schedule

3 p.m.— Winner Match 1 vs. Winner Match 2

5 p.m.— Winner Match 3 vs. Winner Match 4

Sunday's Schedule

11 a.m.— Championship

Every other team at this weekend's WAC Tournament has a vastly different outlook. Most want to win simply so they can play again. Fresno State and Nevada are attempting to solidify NCAA slots.

This tournament means everything to those teams. For Hawai'i, it is a means to an end far beyond the WAC, and the 71-match conference winning streak it takes into today's opening-round match against eighth-seeded Louisiana Tech.

After last Friday's five-game brush with defeat at Fresno State, the opposition is looking at the Rainbow Wahine with a newfound lack of respect. Hawai'i had blown every other WAC team out, but the Bulldogs took UH to 8-all in the fifth game before the 'Bows pulled away behind national player of the week Lily Kahumoku.

"Lily just went kaboom, kaboom, kaboom," recalls FSU coach Lindy Vivas, who called the match an "affirmation" of everything her team had talked about all year. "We played so well. We hit .366 in Game 2 and lost. That's what I told the team before Game 3 — 'You played so well but the problem is I have to ask you to play better because Hawai'i hit .500.' They all started laughing."

The Bulldogs got serious quickly, taking control of the next two games and giving Hawai'i its only five-game match of the season. That, coupled with Washington State's upset of then-No. 1 Stanford, gave players cause to pause, according to Nevada coach Devin Scruggs.

"It lets you dream a little," said Scruggs, whose team fell to WSU in four back in August and is now in its cozy home for the most crucial weekend of the season.

This is obviously an improved WAC. But for injuries, it could have five teams with a legitimate NCAA Tournament claim. Now, San Jose State (13-14) and Rice (18-12) will probably have to win here to get in.

Fresno State (22-5) has been receiving votes in the poll the last nine weeks and clearly deserves a bid. A few more points last Friday and the Bulldogs would have been breathing easier.

"The joke was, if we beat Hawai'i, I would retire and come home on the plane with them," says Vivas, a Punahou graduate whose program is 0-30 against UH.

Despite a rough November, Nevada (19-7) remains among the top 50 in the power rankings. Even Louisiana Tech is in the midst of its best season since 1996, when it played in a much weaker conference.

Hawai'i remains the class of the conference, but at least progress has been made. Fresno's focus has been on consistency and the Bulldogs have been good nearly every night. They still lost here six weeks ago. FSU and Nevada have wins over ranked teams.

"Hawai'i is the standard not just for the WAC, but a whole lot of programs around the country," Vivas says. "What we've talked about is how to take that next step and stay there."

Scruggs has the same goal. She took the Wolf Pack to its first NCAA Tournament in 1998 — her second season. It went to a second last season.

Scruggs envisions turning Nevada into "a mini Hawai'i, in terms of support and attendance." It has gone from playing before 50 fans to selling out its Virginia Street Gym (2,023) for the Hawai'i match.

"People are starting to be more aware of volleyball in this area and it's becoming exciting," Scruggs says. "Having 2,000 people is unbelievable. I think the last time our gym sold out was for a basketball game in the '60s."

Some 500 all-session packages were pre-sold for this tournament, but 300 were bought in Manoa. Nevada is the only WAC school that approaches the appealing ambience of Hawai'i, with its year-round golf, world-class ski resorts, gambling and proximity to Lake Tahoe.

Those forces of nature will bring people here this weekend, as will the Rainbows, who played before record crowds in El Paso, Reno and San Jose this season — and Fresno's third-largest crowd last Friday. The first two were also for Hawai'i.

A tradition of excellence apparently sells as well as a talented home team. "Hawai'i has such a phenomenal tradition," Scruggs says. "People who don't know volleyball know Hawai'i is good."

Aside from last Friday, the Rainbow Wahine have thrived in front of the visiting masses. It's just like home, particularly at a place like San Jose where more than half the fans root for Hawai'i.

Shoji would love to silence another big crowd this weekend, get by Brigham Young and Utah next week, and come home for the next few weeks. That is what the next six days is all about.

"I think we've got to win out to have a chance to host four (NCAA) matches," Shoji says. "I wouldn't say I'm confident, but I would say we've done what we can do."

QUICK SETS: Starting UH middle blocker Karin Lundqvist made this trip and might see some time on the right side. Lundqvist tore the ACL in her left knee against Nevada on Nov. 1 and hasn't played since. ... Hawai'i decided to pass on its 7:30 a.m. practice time this morning. Louisiana Tech also took a pass on a 6:30 a.m. practice.