Warriors swept away
By Stephen Tsai
STANFORD, Calif. — For the Hawai'i volleyball team, the end of the line was an embrace.
In the silence of the UH locker room, head coach Charlie Wade gave each of his players a hug, thanking them for a season that ended with last night's 30-24, 30-28, 33-31 loss to top-ranked Stanford in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament.
"It was a pretty magical year for everyone associated with the program," said Wade, his eyes moistened with emotion. "This is a season we should be proud of."
The Cardinal advance to tomorrow's MPSF title match against Cal State Northridge, which defeated Brigham Young in the other semifinal in Maples Pavilion. Stanford and Northridge, no doubt, will both play in next week's NCAA final four, also on Stanford's campus.
For Hawai'i, the season ends in bittersweetness. The Warriors (19-10) won 10 more games than they did in 2009, but fell short in their self-proclaimed "run for the ring."
Their dream was exhausted by the Cardinal's ball-control precision and drowned out by the whistle-to-whistle heckles of costumed fans.
It ended with the Warriors being good but not good enough.
"We fought and fought," said UH left-side hitter Steven Hunt, who buried 13 kills against one error and hit .545. "We had deuce (sets), but they got two more points than us both times."
The Cardinal entered as the league leader in hitting percentage, a designation that was earned because of the combination of the nation's best passer and setter — both of whom are sons of Rainbow Wahine volleyball coach Dave Shoji.
Most defenses align the libero in the back left. But Stanford placed Erik Shoji in the middle back, trusting that outside hitters Spencer McLachlin and Brad Lawson could dig the Warriors' angle shots.
"We put Erik where we think the ball is going to go, and we thought Hawai'i was going to come up the middle more," Stanford coach John Kosty said.
With the Warriors unable to serve the Cardinal out of system, setter Kawika Shoji had all-points options. Opposite attacker Evan Romero and Lawson each had 18 kills. Shoji also was a threat, amassing five kills — four on second-touch dump shots and another on a spike.
"We steadied out," Kawika Shoji said. "It wasn't the prettiest match, to be honest. We had our B-minus serving game. We just didn't serve as effectively as we wanted. But we were able to sideout and stay close. It was a battle."
But after appearing to be out of sync in the first set, the Warriors regrouped, passing better and feeding 6-foot-9 opposite attacker Jonas Umlauft often. They also made two adjustments — sliding middle blocker Matt "Dragon" Rawson to the pins when Lawson was hitting out of the front corners, and changing the rotation in the third set so Umlauft could open out of the back right.
The Cardinal's counter-strategy was to change their serving tactics. McLachlin, usually a jump server, mixed in float serves. Kawika Shoji would quickly launch serves as soon as he heard the in-play whistle.
"We were a little off balance," UH left-side hitter Joshua Walker said. "We weren't completely set."
And then the Cardinal would substitute jump servers for float servers.
Still, the Warriors remained in contention. Stanford led 29-28 in the second set, when it appeared Rawson stuffed an overpass. But it was ruled that Rawson's hand had reached over and hit the volleyball before it crossed the plane of the net. Rawson was called for a violation, and the Cardinal was awarded set point.
In the third set, the Warriors were serving with a 31-30 lead. But Lawson and Garrett Werner collaborated to block Umlauft.
Then Walker, on the right side, hammered a set that was wide left.
At aloha ball — for the match and season — Umlauft, trapped in the left corner, hit a shot that struck the antenna.
"They're a good team," Umlauft said. "They don't make many mistakes. They're strong at every position. There are no weak players on that team. This is high-level volleyball, and sometimes the other team can (defend) your best (shots)."
Four years ago, the Cardinal finished 3-25. But built with Hawai'i-raised players — the Shojis, Lawson and McLachlin grew up playing club volleyball together — the Cardinal developed a cohesive unit.
"They've really matured, and they know how to play at this level," Kosty said.
Wade is hopeful the Warriors have started on the same path.
"Everybody associated with this program has to feel good about the product we put out," Wade said. "From the renewed passion that it's fun to come out and watch us, to actually posting wins, and a significant amount of wins.
"What people might not see is what happened in practice. We have guys who wanted to be good guys and good teammates, and that showed in their work every day. I'm really proud of these guys."
Visit Tsai's blog at http://warriorbeat.honadvblogs.com.