To Rado Parapunov, a promising professional volleyball career could wait. Destiny couldn’t.
After a runner-up finish in the 2019 NCAA Tournament at the hands of Long Beach State, the University of Hawaii men’s volleyball team entered the 2020 season setting out to finished what it started. Those hopes were ultimately dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled last year’s NCAA winter and spring championships.
When the NCAA granted student-athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, Parapunov ultimately decided to come back for a fifth year in Manoa. The team’s other seniors in outside hitter Colton Cowell and middle blocker Patrick Gasman also announced they would come back. Also back is senior James Anastassiades, albeit as a team manager as he pursues a graduate degree.
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“Probably the thing that brought me back is that I feel like I have a debt towards the Hawaii community,” Parapunov, an opposite, said in a preseason Zoom conference to local media. “I owe them a lot, especially after they helped me come back, helped my teammates Colton, Pat, James to come back. I do believe that I owe them a lot and maybe that was one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to achieve it the first three years, so one last chance to prove that we were worthy of being here.”
The Rainbow Warriors bring back their entire starting core from a team that went 15-1 in 2020 and appeared bound for a collision course with BYU in the national championship game before the season was cut short. The Cougars (3-1) are currently No. 1 in the NVA/AVCA Division I-II coaches poll, while the ‘Bows are right behind at No. 2. UH opens its season with four Big West Conference road games, starting with No. 8 UC Irvine on Sunday with first serve coming at 2 p.m. HST.
“I think everybody’s pretty stoked. I know personally it’s almost surreal talking about getting back out there and start competing,” Hawaii head coach Charlie Wade said. “We can’t really move forward without recognizing just the time and effort that has gone into getting this schedule, even though it seems like the schedule might be a little last minute but it’s been in the works for months and months and months.
“The amount of time it takes at the administrative level and the conference level to get to this point and the collegiality shown with other schools that are hosting us, can’t get really too far into it either without really identifying the people in the community that stepped up and put money on the table to allow us to bring this team back out and get a chance to compete again with this group.”
Four players were named preseason All-Americans by Off the Block, with junior libero Gage Worsley the only non-senior to represent UH on the first team. Worsley was surprised as anyone to see the ‘Bows return as many players as they did, especially Parapunov.
“I was like, ‘Rado, why are you coming back?’ First of all, professional wise, why’d you come back? There’s professional volleyball that has been going on in Europe for months now,” Worlsey recalled. “Why don’t you go do that?
“He eventually came back and (the seniors) all came back. I want to make sure we all end on a good note and if you know what I’m saying. … So many people are making this happen and I’m very grateful, and we’re gonna make sure the state of Hawaii and for us, we’re gonna do it justice.”
Having last year’s seniors return to a team that can only spread out a total of 4.5 scholarships under NCAA rules was made possible by the funding of UH’s boosters. As a result, Wade understands he has an opportunity to coach presumably his deepest squad ever in his 12 years at the helm in Manoa. He also hopes his underclassmen can benefit from the competition provided.
“Just for the young guys in the program, especially for the young guys to get an opportunity to see these guys, how they conduct their business, these are high level professionals on and off the court,” Wade said. “They crush school, they go at it in the practice gym, they’re really responsible for how they conduct themselves in the community and the things they do socially and they can play at a high level so for our young guys in the program, it just helps us continue to build the kind of culture that allows us to be successful year after year.”
The Rainbow Warriors will finally take the court on Sunday after an offseason full of question marks. When first serve arrives, it will be the first step towards their national championship aspirations, a goal that by now has been years in the making.
“I think we’ve been excited since the day we stepped back in the gym. I don’t think that excitement has gone down,” Parapunov said. “We’ve worked on what we have to improve, we bet on guys making sure we can make plays on time. We should be very thankful for our boosters, our administration, everybody who’s able to bring us all back together and find a way to put us back in the gym. The excitement is unbelievable, we’ll be a lot different than we were before, and we just gotta adjust. And I think that sort of adjustment is exciting as well playing in empty gyms.
“There’s a lot of restrictions but when and where, we’ll be there. The ultimate goal is the championship. Nothing else matters. No individual awards, no conference championships, no stuff like that. Those stuff just don’t matter. The ultimate goal — championship. That’s why we’re here. We do believe we can do it.