Rainbow Wahine volleyball fans, we feel your pain. Tonight would have been the team’s 2020 debut, with a home match against Portland State. Of course, that’s not happening. The Big West Conference’s decision to shut down its fall sports calendar means that the 2020 women’s volleyball season won’t be played until next spring – if at all. We sat down with ESPN Honolulu’s Tiff Wells, the radio voice of UH volleyball, to get his thoughts on the lost season, what he’ll miss most, the team’s potential, and the prospects of a spring season:
Q: Thanks for joining us, Tiff. Tonight you were supposed to begin your seventh season doing play-by-play for Rainbow Wahine volleyball. How has the postponement of the volleyball season affected you? What are your thoughts and feelings right now? It must feel a bit weird.
TIFF: Yeah. Sadly, this is my second season that’s been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Men’s volleyball was to begin conference play at CSUN when the Big West announced on March 12th the indefinite suspension of all spring conference and non-conference competition. Then later on that day, the NCAA canceled Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.
I thought maybe there would be better news around the world once we hit June. But I began to agree with Scott Robbs (Spectrum Sports’ pregame and postgame host) around the last week of June that there would be no volleyball in the fall. I tried to hold on to hope, be as optimistic as I could. But when you see the number of cases, number of hospitalizations, number of deaths and the travel quarantine being extended multiple times, it began to look nearly impossible to play matches. And out of safety, all summer long, you began to see teams and then conferences pull the plug on their fall seasons. You just knew it was a matter of time.
Normally around Memorial Day is when the women’s volleyball schedule is released. For me, it’s an exciting time. I’m very blessed and honored to follow and cover this program for every match. Planning out the fall for regular season travel with our great partners at Sports Travel Hawaii is something I look forward to a lot. Looking at the regular season schedule, seeing what non-conference teams UH is playing, which mid-major teams could help UH’s overall RPI and which Power 5 schools could make a trek to the island are just a few things I really look at during the summer.
And yes, it has felt weird. Weird to not have been at the first practice of double days that would have been earlier this month. Weird to not have my spotting boards nearly complete ahead of the season-opening tournament. Weird to not be exchanging text messages with the Spectrum Sports broadcast crew of Kanoa Leahey and Chris McLachlin about which players have stood out in practice or to jokingly ask, “I’m in Gym 1 or the SSC…where are you?” It’s been weird having a lot of free time. I feel for the student-athletes, who work so hard to get ready for an upcoming season only to have this on-going, crazy situation. I’m glad the fall sports athletes received another year of eligibility (like the spring athletes) because they didn’t do anything wrong. We’re just in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
Q: For our listeners, tell us about all the prep work you do before the actual match. What is involved? How much time is put in? And what part of the prep work do you miss the most?
TIFF: I’ve been told numerous times that I spend way too much time on my boards, that I over prep. That is true. Once the schedule comes out and I know what non-conference teams are coming, I’ll constantly check the websites throughout the summer of those respective schools to see if they have released their roster. Once they do, I’ll format their roster onto a board. The same thing happens with UH. I’ll look at bios of players and put that information on as well. Basically anything I see that looks interesting, either something on Twitter or online, I’ll format onto my board.
For UH, I’ll also reference articles I see in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser or what I see on television from Rob DeMello and Alan Hoshida (KHON2) or Cody Krupp (KITV 4). Maybe a week or two before UH plays a team, I’ll email the women’s volleyball contact from that school’s sports information department and ask for a pronunciation guide (if it’s not online), as well as a travelling roster to help prep my board. I usually make it a point to stop by at least one UH practice a week, and I’m very grateful the coaching staff is okay with me doing that. You see a lot by going to practice and I can use what I see in an upcoming broadcast. I also make it a point to try and at least go to one practice that every opponent has when they are here. I usually meet Chris McLachlin and we’ll watch the practice, and their head coach more often than not will be gracious with their time and talk story with us to help us prepare for the upcoming broadcasts.
Once I know the schedule and the dates of when UH will be on the road, I’ll email the women’s volleyball contact of that school’s sports information department to let them know I’m coming (normally a school doesn’t have visiting radio travel) and request a few things (active phone line or ethernet connection, media credential, parking pass). Aside from being away from my fiancé, the travel aspect of the job is fun. I enjoy going to new places and this year, with the additions of CSU Bakersfield and UC San Diego into the Big West Conference on July 1, we would have been going to the cities of Bakersfield and San Diego. Seeing the blue court of the Roadrunners in person would have been something. But alas, we won’t get to do that until next season…whenever it may be.
I love what I do, and this program is very much respected and has a worldwide fanbase. I don’t give myself a set amount of time per day or week as to how much time is put in. It’s not a regular type of 9 to 5 job. As soon as one match ends, you’re preparing for the next and updating everything. I’m an early riser and so I’ll usually put in at least an hour or two every morning before I head out to a job. I’ll be constantly finding information so that every day my boards are being worked on. This is done so that I’m not cramming at the last second and feeling rushed to find information. Like I said earlier, I love what I do so I’m missing everything right now.
Being on an island, many of these student-athletes are thousands of miles away and one way for them to keep tabs on their daughter is to follow the season, and many of those family members will listen to the broadcast. Knowing if someone has a birthday or if a team member wants to give a special shoutout to someone or if someone is going to be at match, those type of things enhance my broadcast. I remember last year prior to the Riverside match, Grandma D approached me outside the arena and asked if I was the one who called the matches. I said yes and she proceeded to tell me how her and the family would listen to every match as well as watch on TV to follow freshman player Riley Wagoner. They would do this from their home in Dublin, Ohio. She told me that she had flown in overnight to see her granddaughter and it was a surprise. Knowing this was one thing, talking about it on air was another thing. But seeing the look on Riley’s face when she knew her Grandma was there and then their embrace after the match…that’s something I’ll never forget. That part of the prep work, the on-the-fly-type things that aren’t found online, I miss that.
Q: Did you have some kind of assessment of just how good this year’s Rainbow Wahine team would be? They lost a lot of players from last year, including their two setters.
TIFF: A lot was lost, but a lot was returning. Arguably the best trio of hitters in the conference were returning (Jolie Rasmussen, Brooke Van Sickle and Hanna Hellvig). A dominant middle blocker combination of 1st-team all-conference Sky Williams and AVCA All-Pacific North Region Honorable Mention Amber Igiede, a rising star who had a huge freshman season. A solid supporting cast of returnees and four new players made for a preseason Top 25 team perhaps a preseason favorite in the conference. Then COVID-19 happened and has continued. Because of that, big news hit the program and state when Hanna Helllvig decided to not return for her sophomore season.
Knowing the original schedule they had and what the roster would have been, everything was in line for another solid 20+ win season and a run into the NCAAs.
Q: Were there any newcomers that you were looking forward to seeing? We heard a lot about freshman setter Kate Lang.
TIFF: There were 4 newcomers for the 2020 season: three true freshmen and a junior transfer. The freshmen: 6’3 middle blocker Anna Kiraly, 6’0 middle blocker/opposite Siena Springborn and 5’10 setter Kate Lang. The junior transfer is 6’2 setter Mylana Byrd. I was looking forward to seeing them all. UH has done quite well with international players. Springborn was a bit of a mystery being a late addition to the program. But both setters were intriguing because both would be first-year players under Robyn Ah Mow. How quickly would they learn the offense? How soon could they develop relationships with their hitters? And both being first-year players at UH, how much time would it take for the offense to flourish?
As far as Kate Lang goes, I recall a conversation I had with assistant coach Kaleo Baxter. Seeing how this coaching staff has gone outside of Hawaii and California for their recruiting, we got to talking about Kate Lang and Texas. She had seen the team in person last year when UH played both Missouri and Baylor at the Baylor Classic. Coach Kaleo told me they were at a club tournament and after seeing her club team play, Coach Ah Mow pointed in Lang’s direction and said, “That’s my setter. That’s who I want to run my offense.” Those are pretty strong words coming from one of the best setters this program has ever seen. When you hear a three-time Olympian setter say “That’s the setter I want for my collegiate program,” it should get you excited.
Q: The Big West’s decision to postpone the season. How confident are you that we’ll have the women playing in the spring? Even if it were green lit, there are so many logistical challenges involved.
TIFF: I won’t go as far to make a guarantee. There is no Championship Chuck with his “I guaaarantee!” phrase as heard on NBA on TNT. Anything can change with us being in a worldwide pandemic. If the Big West gives the green light for fall sports to be playing in the spring, just think of the log jam it creates for facilities on campus. Both men’s and women’s basketball would have been playing since early November (that is, if they start on time, let alone have a season). Like you said, there will be so many logistical challenges. Look at UH. You’d have both men’s and women’s basketball, can’t forget about men’s volleyball. Now throw in women’s volleyball. That’s four teams that all use the same facility for games and day-of prep. Then of course their opponents have to get some time in the arena as well. Could you possibly use Gym I and/or II for more than just practices? Do you rent out the Blaisdell as another option for practice? For games? Maybe ask a high school? We haven’t even gone into the travel quarantine situation. Are fans going to be allowed? If so, how many? How will it be determined who gets to watch live? So many questions.
Q: Last question. As the voice of Rainbow Wahine volleyball, what message would you like to send to all the UH fans and your listeners?
TIFF: You miss sports. I miss sports. I miss being a small, small part of the Rainbow Wahine ohana that brings the sport and team to you, a member of the best fan base in the country. I, like you, miss: the sellout crowd of the Stan Sheriff Center, the “Let’s Go Bows” chant, band director Gwen Nakamura leading the band in between timeouts, the fans singing along to Hawai`i Pono`i, everyone coming to their feet on Aloha Ball and doing the Viking Clap that’s become part of Hawai`i volleyball these last few years, the legendary voice of the Stan Sheriff Center Public Address Announcer Bia Kia`aina and his “…and now meet and greet the starting lineup for your University of Hawaii, Rainbow Wahine,” emcee Billy V announcing who will be singing the National Anthem and Hawai`i Pono`i and of course, the team running out onto the floor as the late Israel Kamakawiwo`ole’s song Hawai`i 78 plays in the background. Just the other day I drove on H-1 and saw the dome shape of the Stan Sheriff Center. I miss my home away from home.
These are very, very tough times for us all. Check in on your loved ones if you don’t live with them. If you can help out aunty or uncle or grandma to deliver food or pick up groceries for them, do it. If you can donate to a charity or to a cause, do it. If you see or know a medical worker or a person on the frontline in this on-going pandemic, thank them. We’re all hurting right now and trying to just do whatever it takes to make it through this, however long it goes. Help out the small businesses, help out the restaurants, tip when you can. Buy local. We may have different last names, but we all still call the most beautiful place home. We’re all one big family. Take care of each other. Be socially distant. Wash your hands. Wear your face mask or covering. Please stay safe.
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