Volleyball NCAA berth likely at stake tonight
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
Like most travelers, the University of Hawai'i men's volleyball team couldn't figure out what to pack.
The trouble was, nobody knew for sure how long the Warriors would be in Southern California. The Warriors' season can end with a loss to Brigham Young in tonight's semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament in Malibu. But if the Warriors win, they expect to receive, at the least, an at-large berth in next week's final four in Long Beach.
Pack for three nights or 13 days?
The decision was easy. "We're in it for the long haul," UH libero Jake Muise said.
Outside hitter Eyal Zimet, the team captain, said: "Our goal is to win another national championship, but we can't think that much ahead. We're thinking about beating BYU first, and whatever comes will come. But we first have to take this step."
Tonight's UH-BYU match, which follows the semifinal between top-ranked Pepperdine and No. 5 seed UC Irvine, offers a side story.
UH coach Mike Wilton could have been BYU's coach. Wilton, who was invited to interview for the job as successor to Carl McGown last May, eventually withdrew his candidacy and signed a three-year contract extension with UH. Wilton is a high priest in the Mormon church, which administers BYU.
It also is widely acknowledged that this semifinal winner should receive a berth in the NCAA final four.
"That's what I would expect," BYU coach Tom Peterson said. "That's kind of the history of late. They pick the team that goes deeper into the playoffs."
UH, ranked second nationally, and BYU, seeded No. 2 in this tournament, finished the regular season with 17-5 MPSF records. The Cougars earned the higher seed because they defeated UH in three games Feb. 20 in Provo, Utah, while the Warriors won the next night's rematch in four games.
The debate could become a moot point. The Warriors seek to win the MPSF tournament and claim the league's automatic berth in the final four. Even though the Warriors have never won the MPSF Tournament, Muise said: "We're confident we can do it this year. The difference between this year and last year is we're not worried about the at-large bid."
UH outside hitter Tony Ching said: "When we stopped worrying about our opponents, and focused on our side of the net, we started to play better. We want to worry only about ourselves."
Ching has developed into a key player since an emotional team meeting Feb. 21, when Wilton decided to go with a set lineup. Brian Nordberg, fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, and Muise, who lost his starting job after five matches, were reinstated as starters.
Soon after, Costas Theocharidis, the MPSF's Player of the Year, moved to opposite hitter, where he receives sets at every rotation turn. To accommodate Theocharidis, Ching was asked to become a perimeter passer. The tradeoff was that Ching, now teamed in the same row with Theocharidis in four of the six rotation turns, faces more single blocks when opponents try to key on Theocharidis.
"Costas," Ching said, "makes it easier for me."
While the Warriors have used the same lineup during a 14-match winning streak, the Cougars have scrambled. Middle blocker Chris Gorny, who has a broken bone in his left hand, returned last week after recovering from an elbow injury. Setter Carlos Moreno is playing on a sprained ankle. Middle blocker Michael Burke has a badly sprained finger on his left hand. Libero Fernando Pessoa suffered a concussion after running into a teammate in Monday's practice.
With BYU's semester ending today, the Cougars shifted practice times this week. Burke missed one practice because of a final exam.
"There are some tweaks, but they're not worth mentioning," Peterson said. "I don't want to say anything that will sound like an excuse."
Besides, Moreno, regarded as one of the nation's best setters, has found ways to accentuate BYU's strengths. He made an easy transition in setting left-handed Joe Hillman, who had started in place of right-handed Jonathan Alleman.
Moreno, whose father was a member of Brazil's national team, is so skillfully sound he rarely tips off his sets.
Moreno also is an offensive threat, unafraid to call his number.
Nordberg said the key to stopping Moreno is to serve tough. UH uses a 3-point scoring system, with "3" being an untouched ace. The goal is for a 2-point serve, in which the pass forces Moreno to race away from the net, making it difficult to set quickly to the middle hitter.
"It's easier to defend a team when the setter only has two options as opposed to three," Nordberg said. "Our job will be easier if we can take the middle attack out of their offense."
The Warriors claim their jump serves sailed in Provo's high altitude in the two regular-season matches between the teams. In Malibu, Zimet said, "altitude will not be a factor. Attitude is the only factor."