It may not be much of a bold statement after defeating the No. 1 team in the country, but the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team has what it takes to become national champions.
Still, given that Hawai‘i’s last NCAA Tournament Final Four appearance was in 2009, some have questioned UH’s ability to perform against big-name opponents.
Sure, the ‘Bows have won their past 76 conference matches dating back to 2008, but those have come against competition from the WAC and Big West, which have routinely made UH look like it’s playing against a JV squad.
However, since 2010, which is when most of this season’s senior class began their UH careers, the ‘Bows have had just a 1-6 record against teams ranked in the nation’s top 15.
But two-time All-American Emily Hartong and her fellow seniors added a second victory on Friday night, and it has made all the difference.
Taking down the country’s top-ranked team in four sets proves that this year’s team has what it takes to go all the way. Yes, it’s only one game into the season, but the previous few editions of Rainbow Wahine volleyball have lacked a certain characteristic that created an inability to beat highly ranked teams, much less topple the defending champions in under five sets.
“Now we know what we’re capable of and how far we can go if we keep pushing each other,” Hartong said. “It’s going to be a true test to ourselves to see how we play each day and practice.”
Outside of the intangibles, the 2013 Rainbow Wahine also feature a rotation filled with quality players.
Obviously Hartong, the reigning Big West Player of the Year, leads the way with her 4.66 kills per set in 2012. She established herself as one of the top three players in the country by recording 18 kills, seven digs and two blocks against the nation’s top team, Texas.
Kalei Adolpho showed that she might be UH’s most improved player by hitting .421 for 11 kills with seven blocks. The junior from Moloka‘i should be more of an offensive threat after averaging 1.58 kills per set in 2012.
Jade Vorster looks to capitalize on her first team All-Big West freshman campaign in which she averaged 2.11 kills and 1.08 blocks per set. The six-foot-four middle blocker promises to step her attack up even more after racking up three seven kills and three blocks while hitting .500 against UT.
Tai Manu-Olevao, who hit just .180 in her freshman season, also appears to have taken advantage of the offseason. She recorded eight kills and eight digs in Friday’s win.
But it is another outside hitter, Nikki Taylor, who could push the ‘Bows over the top. The Kaiser High grad racked up 10 kills, six blocks, four digs and a .500 clip in her collegiate debut.
“It was nice to see her [Taylor] playing with a lot of confidence her first match,” Hartong said. “It could be hard for people to adjust to the atmosphere right away, and she came out really strong.”
In addition to Hartong, Hawai‘i also found senior leadership in two other starters. Setter Mita Uiato ran the offense to near perfection with three kills and 50 assists. Meanwhile, libero Ali Longo kept the defense sharp with a match-high 17 kills en route to limiting Texas to a .262 team hitting percentage.
“Coming in, we talked a lot about playing our game and being aggressive like we are in practice and not letting up to anyone,” Longo said. “It was cool to see us actually do that and not worry about the name on the jersey on the other side.”
With No. 12 UCLA and No. 24 Wichita State being the only other ranked teams on UH’s schedule, it is not impossible to envision the ‘Bows finishing the regular season 27-0 and hosting in the NCAA Tournament.
That potential home field advantage could be huge if the Rainbow Wahine are to deliver UH’s first national title since the sailing team took the 2004 ISA National Championships. Aside from a vacated men’s volleyball title (2002), the last Hawai‘i team to win a non-sailing national championship was Rainbow Wahine volleyball 26 years ago.
But that could change with this season.
It has been well documented that this may be head coach Dave Shoji’s final season at the helm of the Rainbow Wahine. Perhaps it is because he knows that his best chance to win a fourth national championship is right now.