University of Hawaii volleyball team earns the NCAA’s No. 1 seed following night where surreal became real
When the Rainbow Warriors woke Sunday morning after spending the night together at a home in Lanikai, Hawaii first saw the sun rise behind Na Mokulua then saw its name on the NCAA tournament bracket as the No. 1 seed during the selection show.
The dream that began last April 22 when they were left out of the national tournament became a reality. It is the highest seed for Hawaii in six NCAA appearances, topping the Warriors’ No. 2 seed in 2002 (the year they won the title, since vacated for use of an ineligible player).
Hawaii has a bye into the May 2 semifinals at Long Beach State, as do the 49ers, the second seed and hosts. The Warriors (27-2) will face the winner of the April 30 match between fourth-seeded USC (18-10), the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation runner-up and at-large pick, and Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association champion Lewis (25-5).
The tournament begins Thursday with Conference Carolinas champion Barton (24-4) hosting Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association champion Princeton (16-12). The Bulldogs-Tigers winner then travels to Long Beach State to play MPSF champion and third-seeded Pepperdine (22-6), with that winner taking on the 49ers in the other May 2 semifinal.
“The top seed feels great, gives us confidence knowing we only have to win two games to win the national championship,” Hawaii senior hitter Stijn van Tilburg said.
Van Tilburg was named the most outstanding player of the Big West tournament after putting down 25 kills without an error in 46 swings. Four of those came in the deciding Set 5, the last giving the Warriors a 13-7 lead.
“I was tired halfway, but then I realized everyone was tired at this part of the season,” van Tilburg said. “Adrenaline kept me going.
“Last night was so much fun. The crowd was amazing.”
The turnstile count was 9,543, but all 10,300 tickets were sold, giving Hawaii its second sellout of the season. The Warriors’ first since 1997 came on senior night against UC Santa Barbara on April 6.
Many observers felt the noise level surpassed that of the previous men’s volleyball sellouts of the Yuval Katz-Aaron Wilton seasons of 1995 and ’96. Some felt it was louder than even Hawaii’s 1997 upset of then-No. 2 Kansas in men’s basketball because it was sustained through the entire 2 hours and 50 minutes.
It wasn’t just deafening. It rumbled down onto the court.
No one felt it more than Warriors senior setter Joe Worsley when he went back to serve at 14-8.
“As I was walking back, I could feel everyone stand,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is pretty cool’ and then the clap starts.
“I knew it was going to be the last time I’d be back on the (Sheriff) service line in a UH uniform. Colton (junior hitter Cowell) and Gage (his brother sophomore libero) came back and told me, ‘Hit your best serve right now.’ I had been serving very, very poor all night. I knew I was not going to back off. This was going to be a no-regrets serve.”
It went to the middle of the Long Beach State side of the court, where All-American senior libero Jordan Molina’s pass quickly came back to the net. Just as quickly, Hawaii senior middle Dalton Sobrig sent it back and gave Hawaii its first conference title in six appearances in the finals.
“It was awesome, the whole night was awesome,” Solbrig said. “I had wanted to play in front of a sold-out crowd for four years and we got it twice this season.
“It was the last time that this group competes together on this court. It had a lot of meaning behind it, a lot of emotions, for sure. We weren’t planning on going five and hats off to (the 49ers), they have a really good core of guys. But I can’t imagine what it must be like to play in front of a sold-out crowd and it not be your own fans.”
Things will change in 11 days when Long Beach State hosts the final four. The 4,200-seat Pyramid has been sold out for weeks with the potential of additional standing room-only tickets being sold, as happened when the Warriors were there for the 49ers’ senior night on April 13 (a program-record announced crowd of 4,674).
There’s also the potential of Hawaii and Long Beach State meeting for the fourth time in three weeks for the NCAA title on May 4. The Warriors lost the first two in five with Saturday’s five-set win over the 49ers the deciding factor over who would get the top seed.
Long Beach State has won 41 straight at the Pyramid and “we know they play well at home,” Solbrig said, noting the Warriors have lost the last six times against the 49ers at the Pyramid. “But we both have a match to play beforehand and we’ve got to win a match, they’ve got to win a match, before we talk about playing them again.”
“Being No. 1 is an incredible feeling, but it puts a target on our back,” said Cowell, who had career highs of 18 kills and 12 digs on Saturday. “We know that so we’ll go back and get some solid practice in this week and, next time we play, we’re hoping to execute to our standard.”
Cowell admitted to trying to sleep while wearing his championship medal, but took it off sometime overnight. He and some of the Warriors wore the medals during Sunday morning’s selection show making what Cowell called “a surreal experience waking up” more real.
NCAA MEN’S VOLLEYBALL TOURNAMENT
All times Hawaii
Play-in match, Thursday
At Wilson, N.C.
>> Princeton (16-12) at Barton (25-4), 1 p.m.
Opening round, April 30
At Long Beach State
>> USC (18-10) vs. Lewis (25-5), 2 p.m.
>> Barton/Princeton winner vs. Pepperdine (22-6), 4:30 p.m.
Semifinals, May 2
At Long Beach State
>> Hawaii vs. USC/Lewis winner, 2 p.m.
>> Long Beach State vs. Pepperdine/Barton/Princeton winner, 3:30 p.m.
Final, May 4
At Long Beach State
Semifinal winners, 2 p.m.