The last time the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team took the court, it suffered a five-set setback against UC San Diego in the Big West Conference tournament semifinals at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center on April 23. Hawaii briefly held its collective breath heading into Selection Sunday, until the Rainbow Warriors were still deemed the nation’s top seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
Despite not winning the conference crown, everything else the ‘Bows set out to accomplish this year is in front of them heading into Thursday’s national semifinals in Columbus, Ohio against UC Santa Barbara.
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The Rainbow Warriors are currently 15-1, the exact same record the 2020 ‘Bows had before their season came to an abrupt end. For the ‘Bows, winning the national championship was a goal prior to the 2020 season. With its 2020 starting core back in hopes of finishing the job in 2021, the journey has nearly come full circle for UH, which has held multiple practices in Columbus ahead of its matchup against the Gauchos.
“This is a national championship semifinal. Things are at a whole other level,” 2021 AVCA Player of the Year Rado Parapunov said. “We’ve been playing for the past four or five years and we know each other but these games, it’s a different thing. It’s different energy, different expectations.”
The Rainbow Warriors beat the Gauchos three times in as many days in Santa Barbara from March 11 to March 13. After losing the first set of the series, Hawaii took nine consecutive sets from UCSB to sweep the series.
Members of both teams acknowledged that a different UCSB team will take the floor come Thursday.
“We’re definitely a better team than we were then. That was (when) we were coming off two weeks of practice,” UCSB head coach Rick McLaughlin said. “But they’re a better team, too. It’s the exact same thing so we’re gonna have to up our level and our guys know that and they’ve been upping their level when they’ve needed to for the last half of the season. I think it’ll be a really good match. It’ll be a lot tighter than those first three matches.”
“They’re a different team, they’re a better team than they were,” Hawaii libero Gage Worlsey said on his end. “We’re a more experienced team than we were as well, so it’s gonna be some of the small errors that they did or we did that we got away with, that they got away with, probably aren’t gonna happen tomorrow. It’s gonna be a lot of big boy volleyball and it’s gonna be fun to play.”
The Gauchos ended up winning the Big West Tournament in Manoa and beat Pepperdine in four sets in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. Momentum is on their side. The ‘Bows, on the other hand, have not yet had an opportunity to redeem themselves from their showing against UC San Diego. Come Thursday, one team will punch its ticket to the national championship match, while the other will leave Columbus with its 2021 ambitions unfulfilled.
“They’re playing a lot better than when we played them in February a few months ago so they’re a good team,” Hawaii head coach Charlie Wade said. “We’re gonna have our hands full, there’s no question.
“For us, we’re in the semifinals so you gotta win two matches to win the national championship. Santa Barbara’s just our first opponent so you definitely want to play well and advance.”
First serve between Hawaii and UC Santa Barbara is set for 11 a.m. HST. The game will be streamed on NCAA.com.