Tiny Hawaii takes on volleyball's Goliath
By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — Do you believe in volleyball miracles?
When third-ranked Hawai'i steps onto the St. Pete Times Forum teal court tonight in an NCAA Championship semifinal, Penn State will be the prohibitive favorite.
The Nittany Lions have a litany of records. They have won their past 100, a streak that nearly doubles the previous mark. They are trying to become the first to three-peat. A 17th consecutive NCAA Tournament victory would set another record.
To complete the harmonic convergence Hawai'i faces, PSU coach Russ Rose is trying to become the third in his profession to win 1,000 matches — after UCLA's Andy Banachowski and UH's Dave Shoji, who accomplished it this season.
An upset by the Rainbow Wahine, relegated to 12th seed by the NCAA, would rock volleyball's world.
"I think they (the Nittany Lions) are the best ever," said Cincinnati coach Reed Sunahara, a Hilo boy who considers both Shoji and Rose mentors. "What they've done the past three years is something that's untouched.
"An upset would rank right at the top of the great upsets in volleyball."
Penn State opened last season in Hawai'i, in Kanani Danielson's first collegiate match. The Lions roared through a sweep on the way to defending their national championship.
They were too tall, talented and relentless. They still are, but now Danielson is a seasoned first-team All-American and the Rainbow Wahine have found a comfortable rhythm they can live and win with.
In the Rainbows' 28-match win streak, they have out-served, out-passed and out-hit nearly every opponent. Behind the annoying serves of seniors Aneli Cubi-Otineru, Amber Kaufman and Stephanie Brandt, they have 196 aces to opponents' 60, and they have been twice as efficient hitting (.313 to .146).
Penn State leads the country in hitting (.394) and is second in blocks. Only four teams have even hit .200 against the Nittany Lions.
No one comes close to their level of intimidation.
"An upset would be monumental. There is nothing to compare," says Hawai'i color analyst Chris McLachlin, a former national team coach. "But I'm not putting anything past this team. Hawai'i keeps surprising. It beat USC at USC and swept the one team (Michigan) that took Penn State to five. They've played to their potential for four months now. That's very hard to do."
Which offers insight into what it is like to ring up 100 straight wins, in one of the country's toughest conferences, graduating seniors each year.
Penn State has poured its heart and soul into this streak, to say nothing of bringing in a seemingly endless string of 6-foot-plus terminators.
The latest, greatest is Megan Hodge, a 6-3 hitter who was most valuable player in the past two NCAA championships. Yesterday, she was named to her fourth All-America first team.
Joining her on that team is 6-3 middle Arielle Wilson, who is hitting .559, 6-5 opposite Blair Brown and 6-foot setter Alisha Glass.
"God, they are 6-3 across the net when they're not 6-4 or 6-5," said former Rainbow Wahine trainer Melody Toth, who lives three miles from Penn State. "Hawai'i has got to watch the 1987 regional final against Pacific and see what (5-8) Mahina Eleneki did to the Hert sisters, and how Tita (Ahuna) did not let a ball hit the floor."
Even on this coast, Toth has heard about these 'Bows, who look so much like those old 'Bows.
"Everything I hear and see is that this is the 'Tita
Team,' " Toth said. "The Hawai'i team, the team that leaves it all on the court, like '79, '82, '83 and '87. I like the odds, I do. I hear about Aneli — 'Whoa Aneli,' she's got it, the heart of Tita."
Toth, always one to search for signs, also saw this in Hawai'i's favor: In 2007 and '08, she saw Rose in August and PSU went on to win titles.
"I didn't see him this August," she says. "Let's Go 'Bows."
Coaches are more analytical. Most believe Hawai'i's only hope is to serve Penn State out of its smashmouth system. The Rainbows have done a remarkable job of nullifying the left-side attack this postseason, but they will need help when giving up anywhere up to seven inches at every position.
Shoji is realistic, but also buoyed by his team's snowballing spirit.
"They are going to get beat at some point so I hope we do it," he said. "It will come down to the serving and passing game. If they pass well, then their offense will be hard to stop. If we can take them out of something they like to do, then we have a chance.
"We have survived on pretty good skill and a lot of heart. It's kind of a cliché, but you look at us and we're so under-sized and still churning out wins. It's got a lot to do with mental toughness."
Former players, coaches and friends have their own ideas.
Kris Pulaski, an integral part of the 1982 and '83 national championship teams at Hawai'i, came to the regional last week and left with this impression: "They have to go deep."
McLachlin has a list that includes "serve like they did Friday and Saturday where the bottom dropped out of the ball;" allow Dani Mafua to set the offense into "hyper drive;" refuse to let balls hit the floor, and look to the five seniors.
UH athletics director Jim Donovan is awed by PSU — "How awesome is 100 straight?" — but ... "I'm just saying we have every chance in the world to win because we're playing great volleyball now. Our volleyball, Dave Shoji volleyball."
Play to your strengths and take away those of the opponent. Never let a ball drop. Pass precisely. Beat blockers to the ball.
Go to middles Brittany Hewitt and Amber Kaufman — who rested her abdominal strain and, like Catherine Fowler (sprained ankle), did not practice this week — enough to give 6-foot-and-under hitters Danielson, Cubi-Otineru and Stephanie Ferrell a seam in the block.
Hawai'i is just as athletic as the Nittany Lions and maybe quicker. It is also much, much smaller.
"It's not so much Hawai'i's defense as Hawai'i's offense and ability to put balls away besides just Kanani," said Nevada coach Devin Scruggs. "They rely so much on Kanani, they have to open it up. Can they stop Kanani? Well, she's only 5-10 but she touches like 6-10.
"This would be the biggest upset in the time I've seen because no team has dominated like Penn State is right now. Hawai'i has the underdog factor and just some amazing athletes ... but it has to play a perfect game."
There is history. The Rainbow Wahine were down 0-2 the first two times it won national championships.
"When its back is against the wall, Hawai'i doesn't back up," says Diane (Sebastian) Pestolesi, an All-American on the 1979 team celebrating the 30th anniversary of UH's first title. "It knows how to compete.
"Dave gets the most out his players week in and week out. They don't have a history of rolling over. If they did, they wouldn't be where they are. If they won, it would surprise everybody but the people that know the Hawai'i tradition."
Tom Shoji, Dave's brother and the Willamette coach, believes in volleyball miracles.
"It's a phenomenal feat. To win 100 in a row won't happen again in our lifetime," he said. "So Dave beating Penn State in the semifinals would be just a tremendous, tremendous feat, because of what it is, where it is and what it all means."
Penn State, Texas and Hawai'i have been ranked 1-2-3 in the Coaches Top 25 since Oct. 12, with Minnesota 11th. The Gophers, seeded No. 11, play second-seeded Texas in tonight's other semifinal.
Stanford is the lowest seed ever to win an NCAA volleyball title, at No. 11 in 2004.
Hawai'i's enrollment of about 20,000 is half that of Penn State. Minnesota and Texas boast enrollments of 50,000.
In this decade, the Rainbow Wahine's winning percentage of .892 (305-37) is third, behind Nebraska (.921) and Florida (.893). Penn State is fourth (.889).
This is the second time there have been two Big Ten teams in the final four, the first coming 15 years ago.
The AIAW and NCAA have sponsored a women's volleyball national championship since 1970. In that period, every national championship tournament at the highest level of competition has featured at least one team from California in the final four ... until now. Only two of the seven California teams (Cal and Stanford) reached regionals this year. California teams have won 25 national championships (17 NCAA, 8 AIAW) and lost in 22 finals.
This will be the third NCAA final four (out of 29) — and first since 1998 — that does not feature a Pac-10 team.
Hawai'i has a few fans and family here, with more on the way. Coach Dave Shoji's family, along with his two brothers and in-laws from North Dakota arrived yesterday.
Shoji sent this text to Minnesota coach Mike Hebert after both their teams won Saturday: "Old guys rule."