Rainbow Wahine headed to Long Beach
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Ann Miller
After the last few years, nothing the NCAA does would surprise Hawai'i. Nothing did yesterday — good or bad — when the NCAA Volleyball Championship bracket was announced.
The 12th-ranked Rainbow Wahine (26-5) will travel for this week's subregional. They also don't have a top-ranked team staring them down in the early rounds as they have in the past, nor do they need to take their parkas or more than one flight.
The 'Bows drew Oregon (17-11), the Pac-10's sixth-place team, in the first round. They will play Friday at 3 p.m. Hawai'i time at Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid in California.
"It could have been somewhere a lot less familiar," UH senior Sarah Mason said. "Like Kansas or somewhere."
Long Beach State (25-5) and 24th-ranked Pepperdine (16-11) follow, with Friday's winners meeting Saturday (5 p.m. HST) to advance to the Honolulu Regional Dec. 8 and 9 at Stan Sheriff Center.
The top 16 teams were seeded — a power rating totally separate from weekly rankings — and pairings were made by geographical proximity. Teams from the same conference cannot play each other in the first and second rounds.
Hawai'i is seeded 12th and in the Honolulu Region with No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 USC and No. 13 Oklahoma.
New Mexico State is the only other Western Athletic Conference team in the tournament, earning one of 33 at-large bids. The Aggies have been to three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, but are looking for their first victory when they play Colorado in Boulder.
The 'Buffs, who were swept by Hawai'i the second week of the season, are the only team to beat top-ranked Nebraska this year.
"I thought they (the Aggies) caught a break in playing somebody they have a chance to beat and go to the second round," UH coach Dave Shoji said. "They might have caught a better break than we did in the first round."
Oregon's record is not as imposing as its schedule. The Ducks are in the midst of a rebirth with second-year coach Jim Moore. Their 12 wins last year were the most in 14 seasons. Their non-conference record under Moore is 21-1. In the top-heavy Pac-10, which has seven teams in the NCAA Tournament, it is 8-28.
They have lost their last seven, but all but two defeats this season (at Arizona and Arizona) have come against Top-15 teams.
Rainbow senior Mason was a Duck her first two years before transferring home. She calls playing her former teammates "exciting and weird." Senior Heather Madison was her roommate and junior Karen Waddington her best friend.
Mason called yesterday to congratulate them on the team's first NCAA appearance since 1989. The Ducks won their first 10 this season — dropping Long Beach, Boise, Fresno and Utah States in the process — to tie a school record. They took sixth-seeded Washington to five and had a win over then-No. 8 Cal, which put them in the Top 25 for the first time in 15 years.
"In the Pac-10 they play the top teams in the nation on a weekly basis so they're not scared to play us at all," Mason said. "They can only go up. It's their first time in a long time, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain."
Oregon freshman Sonja Newcombe, a 6-foot-1 middle, averages a team-high 3 1/2 kills a game. Mira Djuric, one of three Serbians, was named to the Pac-10 all-freshman team last year and led the conference in serving this season. The Ducks are second in serving as a team.
Those are just a few of the many aspects of Oregon that worry Shoji. "They are a really tough Pac-10 team," he said. "There is no doubt they can play with anybody."
Hawai'i has a few things going for it, including its shortest possible itinerary. It is coming off its best week of the year, winning its ninth straight WAC Championship and 13th consecutive match Friday against NMSU.
"That win was really good for us because we played really well," Mason said. "If we played like that all the time we'd have been killing teams. We need to keep that intensity."
The 'Bows also have a lineup written in indelible ink — in part because of a rash of season-ending injuries — and none of these Rainbows have been terrorized in LBSU's Pyramid, site of many Hawai'i nightmares in years past.
"These players don't have any bad memories," Shoji said. "That's just the fans and me, basically."
The best motivation though, might be what Saturday's winner receives: A trip to Hawai'i.
"We will have good energy just for that," Shoji said. "That is a lot of motivation."
The Pacific 10, Southeastern and Big Ten led all conferences with seven teams selected. The final four is Dec. 14 and 16 in Omaha, Neb., expecting thunderstorms and a high of 53 degrees today. The high in Reno, Nev., site of last week's WAC Tournament, is expected to be 37, with up to six inches of snow.
Long Beach State finished second to Cal Poly in the Big West. It features conference co-Player of the Year Alexis Crimes and setter Nicole Vargas, daughter of former Olympic setter Debbie Green. Cal Poly, which was ranked 23rd when it split matches at Hawai'i in September, got the 15th seed in the tournament and is hosting a subregional.
Pepperdine lost two five-game matches at Hawai'i the first week of the season. The Rainbows were without Sarah Mason that week (injured ankle) but Tara Hittle and Jessica Keefe started. Both are out for the season with injuries. The Waves have since beaten Cal Poly and 16th-ranked San Diego.
Reach Ann Miller at email@example.com.