Everything about the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team’s national championship celebration felt real in 2002.
Until it wasn’t.
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Although the ‘Bows won the 2002 national championship game over Pepperdine in four sets, the win was later stripped by the NCAA Committee on Infractions after it ruled UH star outside hitter Coastas Theocharidis, the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, ineligible for previously playing against professionals.
The memories from that run 19 years ago still live on for members of the team, including starting libero Vernon Podlewski.
“I’m very proud. I’m very proud of all my teammates, coach (Mike) Wilton, everybody on staff. To this day, it just carries me in a different way and also I feel like I was there and I played the match, I did my job,” Podlewski told KHON2 sports director Rob DeMello. “Whatever happens after that, it happens and I don’t look at it as a vacated title. I look at it as a remembrance of I played a good match against a good team and there was a winner and a loser, just not on, I guess, paper. NCAA. That’s what I took out of it. I still love it and I enjoyed it.”
Podlewski, a Makawao native and Maui High School graduate, beams with pride when recalling the task of playing for the state of Hawaii every time he took the court.
“There’s no place like playing in Hawaii. All the awesome fans, and just the support. It actually brings you up to a higher level when you get to have that many fans. I know this year it was a little different but just the spotlight that we have and the love and the support from everybody,” Podlewski says. “You can’t help but to bring your game every time and want to have success and leave here with a good experience. I think everybody’s realizing that.”
As the program continues to search for its first-ever national title, the 2021 Rainbow Warriors head into next week’s NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio as the No. 1 seed for the second time in a row. The top-seeded ‘Bows fell to Long Beach State in the 2019 national championship game. After no tournament was held in 2020 after it was canceled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ‘Bows are determined to finish what they started.
In 2002, the ‘Bows fell to Pepperdine in the MPSF tournament finals before topping the Waves in the NCAA title game. Despite Hawaii’s shocking loss to UC San Diego, Podlewski hopes UH’s 2021 season ends in similar fashion, minus the NCAA interference.
“Any chance you get a shot again or continuing to keep the wins going, whatever it is, playing another match, that’s the big point,” said Podlewski, who had 11 digs and no errors in the 2002 national championship game. “You can win, win for Hawaii, win for yourself, win for your coach, whoever it is. Just another chance to go for it again, that’s the best right there.”
Nearly two decades later, Podlewski cherishes the memories of 2002. As far as he’s concerned, no one can take that away from him. When asked if there’s any advice he wanted to give to the ‘Bows before they head off to Columbus, he just hopes they play their brand of ball.
“I would say trust your guts. Trust your teammates,” Podlewski said. “It comes in from the first time you walk in, whenever you throw that first pass, that first dig, their first swing and then after that it’s just playing volleyball so that’s what I’ll take away — just get in there and enjoy the moment and crack that first shot.”