UH banking on sweep, upset
By Stephen Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Stephen Tsai
All season, members of the University of Hawai'i men's volleyball team have echoed this line: The only rankings that matter are the ones at the end.
Well, time's up.
Against Brigham Young tonight and tomorrow, the Warriors conclude the regular season with matches that will determine their immediate future.
The Warrior still have a please-please-please chance of earning the top seed for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation postseason tournament.
If top-ranked UC Irvine defeats UC Santa Barbara tomorrow, the Anteaters (19-2) would earn the No. 1 seed, a quarterfinal bye and the host's role for the tournament's semifinals and championship match. The tournament winner earns the MPSF's automatic berth in the NCAA final four.
If Irvine loses to Santa Barbara, the Warriors, who own the tie-breaker between the teams, can earn the top seed with a sweep of BYU.
Even if Irvine wins, UH (17-3), which already has clinched the No. 2 seed, needs to put distance between BYU (14-6), currently the No. 3 seed. The MPSF has provided the at-large team in all but one of the past 24 NCAA tournaments, and the Warriors' chances would be enhanced if they are regarded as the nation's undisputed second-best team.
"I think, maybe, they're the best team in the country," BYU coach Tom Peterson said. "They run a very fast offense, and they're very well coached."
The Warriors also are enjoying improved health. Outside hitter José José Delgado, the team leader with 4.33 kills per game, has recovered from a throat infection that forced him to miss last week's matches.
"I lost a little weight, but I've been eating well lately," Delgado said. "Last week, I couldn't eat anything because my throat was hurting a lot."
Delgado is important because of his skill in hitting out of the back row, as well as his accurate passing. UH is able to run a quick offense because it has four passers in the rotation — a fifth when setter Brian Beckwith is in the back row — and an emergency setter in libero Alfee Reft.
Middle blockers Dio Dante (torn ligament in his right pinkie) and Mauli'a LaBarre (sprained thumb) have not been slowed by injuries.
BYU's top attacker, outside hitter Yosleyder Cala, has complained of soreness in his swinging shoulder.
"It's probably from over-use," Peterson said. "It's going to be sore for a while. It's probably chronic."
UH coach Mike Wilton said he does not expect Cala to miss a beat. "He's still 6-8, isn't he?" Wilton said.
Cala, who was a member of the Cuban national team, is another intriguing BYU player. During a tournament in Puerto Rico in 2004, he walked away from the team hotel and told local officials he wanted to defect.
Peterson said Cala stayed with family friends in Puerto Rico. After a year, he wrote to Peterson.
Cala took recruiting trips to UCLA and BYU.
"He happened to like us, I think," Peterson said. "He decided he wanted to come to Provo."
But Cala had to pass several academic and eligibility obstacles. He did not enroll at BYU until January, too late to make the deadline for the Cougars' 2006 media guide.
"He's doing well," Peterson said. "He's working hard. Sometimes people say to him, 'You've got all of the experience.' But it's been a couple of years since he played (internationally)."
The NCAA limits volleyball teams to the financial equivalent of 4.5 scholarships. Cala, like the other starters, receives a partial scholarship. Still, it is a struggle, Peterson said, noting, "He doesn't have all of the money in the world."
Cala's experience is not unique to BYU, which is administered by the Mormon church. Middle blocker Victor Batista, who played for the Dominican Republic's national team, is 26. Setter Rob Nielsen, who went on a two-year church mission, is 25. The average age for a BYU starter is 23.
"The age experience is a huge thing," Beckwith said. "A lot of their players come back (from missions) a lot bigger and more mature."
But UH's LaBarre, who went on a church mission to Russia, said missionary work is not easy. "For two years, you're not going to be playing a sport you love."
LaBarre added it is not difficult to compete against a school run by his church. "I'm a UH student," he said. "I'm a UH athlete. I cheer for my school. (The Cougars) have nice guys and it's a nice school, but when it comes down to it on the court, we're enemies. It's like, 'I play for UH and you play for BYU. I'm trying to win, and you're in the way of that.' "
Reach Stephen Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.