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Room for Improvement

After a 3-5 start to the season, the University of Hawaii women’s volleyball team has bounced back to win all four of their Big West Conference matches. This week, the Rainbow Wahine return to the road to face UC San Diego and UC Davis. To get an assessment on the team so far this season, we turned to Tiff Wells, the radio voice of UH volleyball. Here’s our conversation:

Q: The Rainbow Wahine have seemingly turned things around after an uneven start to the season. What do you attribute to the team’s improvement?

TIFF: I think the quality of non-conference teams that they played earlier in the season really helped. It got them ready for conference play. Plus, basically whoever wins the league will likely be the only team to get into the [NCAA] Tournament. So there’s more of a sense of urgency because there’s more on the line with these conference matches. I also think that Coach Robyn has really slimmed down her rotation, and for the most part there aren’t a lot of substituting. The coaches have bought into their lineup and are now fine-tuning it and working to get the starters to be better and to mesh together. Also, winning solves a lot of problems!

Q: Kate Lang has been inserted into the lineup as the team’s starting setter. What kind of impact has she had for the Wahine?

TIFF: Well, I think the first thing to mention is the team’s [improved] hitting percentage. And this isn’t a knock on [former starter] Mylana Byrd. Lang is distributing the ball around and not relying on specifically one hitter. As you saw in the team’s first three conference matches, Hawaii hit above .320, which they didn’t do a whole lot of during the non-conference season. Kate’s gotten more comfortable and is in a groove. Yes, she still has things to work on, but she’s just a freshman and she has so much potential and upside.

Q: What about another freshman, Tayli Ikenaga? She had a career-high 24 digs the other night against Cal State Fullerton. Did you expect her to be the starting libero right away?

TIFF: I think the coaches knew she was going to be groomed as the team’s next libero. It’s been an adjustment for her, for sure, but she’s doing the best that she can. She was a six-rotation outside hitter at Moanalua H.S., but is now focusing solely on serve receive, passing and defense. It’s been a mixed bag of results so far. Sure, there have been a few times when she’s been aced or out of position defensively, but remember it’s a big adjustment to go from high school ball to playing at the D1 college level. She just needs to gain confidence and become a more vocal leader in the back row. Overall, she’s done quite well. With Kyra Hanawahine no longer on the roster, Tayli knows this is her position.

Q: Two players who have really stepped up as leaders are Brooke Van Sickle and Amber Igiede.

TIFF: I would agree. This is especially key for Van Sickle because she’s basically on the floor for every play and every rotation. You know what you’re going to get with Brooke. She’s always going to give you double- digit kills and near-double-digit digs. She knows she’s the team’s number one option, which means the opposing teams know it as well. So she knows she’s going to be facing double blockers every time. Brooke has also taken the role of being a vocal leader, which she hadn’t had to do in the past.

As for Amber, she’s really taken over as the team’s top middle. No disrespect to Sky Williams or Anna Kiraly, but Amber is the middle of the future. We all know what she can do defensively in terms of blocks. If Hawaii can continue to pass well and run the middles, a lot of success will come for Amber. She has to realize that she’s basically Hawaii’s number two option, and so teams are going to key on her. Like Brooke, Amber has to be patient and not get frustrated if she’s not getting kills or if teams are sending double or even triple blockers her way.

Q: What do you think the team still needs to improve on in order to win the Big West?

TIFF: [Former UH basketball coach] Riley Wallace used to say, to win your conference you have to win your home games and at least split on the road. For this team, they have to not look past their next opponent. I think that possibly might have been the case on Sunday against Fullerton. Anybody can get up for a Long Beach State or UC Santa Barbara or Cal Poly or another top conference team. This team needs to find consistency in its play and to limit the number of runs by their opponents. They just need to focus on the next point.

Q: Last questions. How has the team reacted to the no-fan policy by our government officials, and what kind of difference would fans have on the season?

TIFF: I think if fans were allowed to attend, that match on Sunday would not have gone five sets. I don’t think it would have gone four. It would be a whole different story. These fans are so knowledgeable and so passionate. Even opposing teams, they want to play in the Stan and experience these fans. For a lot of players, it’s the highlight of their volleyball career. They appreciate how much Hawaii fans love volleyball. It’s been quite some time since Hawaii has had fans at the Stan – in fact, the last time was on Senior Night 2019. The fans definitely make a difference. But regardless, their focus is squarely on the play on the court. That’s what they can control. They can’t worry about things that they have no control over.

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