Warriors reach MPSF semifinals
• Photo gallery: Hawaii vs. Pepperdine volleyball
By Stephen Tsai
When aloha ball touched down, ending a dramatic resurrection, the Hawai'i volleyball team finally could exhale.
"We were on the verge, and then we took a deep breath," UH left-side hitter Joshua Walker said, "and that pushed us through."
Refusing to lose, the Warriors rallied for a 24-30, 30-24, 30-26, 22-30, 18-16 victory over Pepperdine in last night's opening round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament.
A Stan Sheriff Center crowd of 5,391 watched the Warriors rebound from 9-6 and 13-11 deficits in the fifth set to advance to Thursday's semifinal against top-seeded Stanford. The tournament's semifinals and title match will be played on Stanford's home court.
"This is an amazing feeling," said UH opposite attacker Jonas Umlauft, who slammed an arm-numbing 36 kills on 71 attempts. "I can't describe it. It's unbelievable."
UH setter Nejc Zemljak said: "I'm so proud of this team. I'm proud of everybody involved."
Despite winning two of the first three sets, the Warriors struggled to find their offensive rhythm while trying to receive the Waves' float serves.
The tone then changed in the fourth set when the Waves changed their lineup. Middle blocker Rodnei Santos was moved to opposite attacker, replacing ineffective Maurice Torres (seven kills, six errors). The strategy was designed to trade ball-handling for Santos' power.
The Waves dominated the fourth set, and took control in the fifth when the Warriors struggled with their serves.
"We knew we had to slow everything down," Walker said. "We had to slow down, take a deep breath, and take it one point at a time. And we did that."
Still, the Warriors faced elimination when the Waves served with a 15-14 lead. But then Umlauft, who led the MPSF in scoring but was snubbed from the all-league first team, slammed a kill that ricocheted off Matt Pollack.
It was one of eight kills Umlauft had in the fifth set.
"I had some really good swings in the end," Umlauft said. "There was a lot of pressure. But when you have so many people around you — the crowd, my teammates — you don't get tired. They're pushing you so much, you have unlimited energy on the court."
It was 16-all when Brent Schirrpa took a set in the left corner of the front row. UH outside hitter Steven Hunt soared for the block. The ball hit off Hunt's hands, and landed inches inside the Waves' left sideline.
"I wasn't blocking too much in that game," Hunt said. "I had to make it right for my team. Luckily, I got the block. It was a trouble set. I got up solid, and the rest is history."
Quick pre-historic lesson: Hunt did not start because he was still recuperating from the after-effects of flu-like symptoms the past week. Ernie Vidinha started at the second outside spot, but, unknown to the coaches, Vidinha, also had been weakened by flu-like symptoms. The Warriors did not get a kill from that position until the third set.
But this would be the Warriors' night, and there was only one thing for UH head coach Charlie Wade to tell Zemljak as he went back to serve aloha ball: Breathe.
"It's similar to a pre-shot routine in golf," Wade said. "Sometimes, they're caught up in emotion, and are breathing hot, and think they can serve two points. You can't do that."
Zemljak then launched a serve that hit the tape, and fell untouched to the Teraflex, triggering a loud celebration.
"The first step is done," Zemljak said. "Now we have to take the next step."