Hawaii, Stanford surprise semifinal
BY Stephen Tsai
What were the odds?
Nine months ago, maybe it was 10-to-uh-uh chances of the Hawai'i volleyball team facing top-ranked Stanford in tonight's Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament's semifinals in the Cardinal's Maples Pavilion.
The Warriors entered this season with six returning starters from a team that did not qualify for the previous two postseasons, and was last in MPSF hitting percentage in 2009, a statistical lowlight that indicated a breakdown in the pass-set-spike connection.
The Warriors' new head coach (Charlie Wade) had never coached college men's volleyball, and the heralded newcomer from Germany (opposite attacker Jonas Umlauft) was recruited through the Internet.
Stanford, which has improved steadily the past four seasons, has always faced long odds. Each year, there are more than 30,000 applicants for a little under 2,000 admissions to the Palo Alto, Calif., school. Ninety-nine percent of those admitted scored at least 600 on each of the SAT's three 800-point sections.
"It's not just recruiting good volleyball players, it's recruiting the best scholar volleyball players," said John Kosty, who has been the Cardinal's head coach for four years but involved in the program for two decades.
Yet, here they are, two underdogs competing for best in show.
The tournament winner — Brigham Young and Cal State Northridge meet in the other semifinal — earns the league's automatic berth in next week's NCAA final four, also held on the Stanford campus. The at-large berth also should go to an MPSF team.
Under Wade's delegation of power, and led by Umlauft's pure power hitting, the Warriors have transformed into contenders.
Contrasting his Red Bull-swilling image, Wade has provided calm leadership. He sets the parameters of practices and matches while empowering his coaches and players to make their own decisions.
"Chuck," libero Ric Cervantes said of Wade, "creates a positive environment."
Wade's rote-taught lesson is: Stay in the moment.
"We're focusing on our routine," left-side hitter Joshua Walker said. "We have to be confident in our abilities, and concentrate on the things we do best."
For the Warriors, that means adhering to specific roles. Left-side hitter Steven Hunt, who was recruited two years ago as a go-to hitter, now complements Cervantes as a primary passer. Hunt also became a placement server, a change-up to jump servers Walker, Umlauft and setter Nejc Zemljak.
"I try to get the serve in, and let our good defense and blocking win us points," Hunt said.
Walker, who has a 44 1/2-inch vertical jump and can touch 11 feet 7 1/2, has worked on his ground game. Although he is the most targeted Warrior, Walker is no longer a liability as a passer. He has successfully passed 95 percent of the serves in MPSF play. In volleyball's version of the give-and-go, Walker has become a threat in passing to Zemljak, then hammering the return set.
Umlauft, meanwhile, has made the corrections to become the Warriors' primary attacker. He has maintained his strength with in-season weightlifting sessions. He also has fixed a flaw in which he shuffled — taking, in volleyball parlance, a "negative" step — while attacking sets. With a revised three-step approach, Umlauft has more power when he spikes.
"He knows what he has to do to be successful at this level," Wade said. "He's been able to raise his level of play to match it."
Kosty described Umlauft as the Warriors's "clean-up hitter. When rallies go on, he's the guy they expect to set and put the ball away."
Stanford also has made adjustments in developing its program.
"There was a lot of recruiting and a lot of hard work," said Kosty, whose Cardinal finished last in the MPSF four years ago. "Turnarounds don't happen overnight. It took longer than four years. It's been a long process. We're reaping some of the benefits we've been working on for the last several years."
Evan Romero was recruited as a middle blocker. Now he is the starting opposite attacker. Setter Kawika Shoji was a combo outside hitter/setter. Libero Erik Shoji set was an outside hitter at Punahou School.
And as an 'Iolani School sophomore, outside hitter Brad Lawson had to overcome a "goofy-footed" approach
"He had a backward approach," Kosty said. "It was hard to watch him play. It looked painful. He switched his approach, and his game changed."
Last week, Lawson was named the MPSF's Most Outstanding Player.
Still, Kawika Shoji said, "We don't have any superstars. We have guys who work hard night in and night out."
The Cardinal's effectiveness is traced to ball-handling. Erik Shoji is acknowledged as the NCAA's best passer. Kosty said Shoji's ability to soar for digs stems from his years as a highly ranked tennis player.
Outside hitter Spencer McLachlin and Lawson also are accurate passers.
"They make me look good," Kawika Shoji said. "They pass me the ball, and I can get it out to my hitters, and then they do the job. I'm fortunate to be surrounded by great passers and great hitters."
Kawika Shoji also is a threat as a second-touch hitter. Not only can he hit dump shots, but he is effective swinging away.
"That's part of my increased role in the offense," Shoji said. "That's helped free up some of the other guys. It gives the offense a different look."
UH middle blocker Matt Rawson said: "Kawika is probably the best player in the country right now. His overall game is just incredible. It's going to be a great match."