By Tiff Wells.
Although the University of Hawaii women’s volleyball team had their 2021 campaign ended after falling to Washington in the NCAA Tournament’s round, their overall season has to be considered a success. The Rainbow Wahine lost their associate head coach (Angelica Ljungqvist) and several key players prior to the start of the season, but still overcame a slow start to claim another Big West Conference crown.
While their season is over, head coach Robyn Ah Mow and her team will undoubtedly stay busy. For while there is much to look forward to in 2022, there is also much to be worked on to keep the success going moving forward.
The Rainbow Wahine graduate three seniors – two of which were starters and the third a key player off the bench: Brooke Van Sickle (starting outside hitter and 2021 Big West Conference Player of the Year; led the conference in points per set and second in kills per set) will be a big loss. Sky Williams (two-time first-team All-Big West middle blocker; seventh in the Big West in hitting percentage and eighth in blocks per set) will be missed as well. Janelle Gong (sixth on the team in both digs per set and service aces) became the number one serving/defensive specialist. All three positions (OH1, MB2 and DS) will need to be replaced heading into the 2022 season.
The program will look for more consistency throughout their matches. Too many times, opponents went on long scoring runs where UH just couldn’t side out in a certain rotation. Also looking to improve in 2022: higher percentages from the pin hitters, tougher serving into the gaps, a consistent right-side offensive presence, steady three-point passes on serve receive and even more dependable digging.
As of right now, no UH players are in the transfer portal. Annika de Goede (6’3” opposite) is in the process of rehabbing after a successful surgery following a leg injury that came just two weeks into the 2021 season. Also coming off a redshirt season is Ilayda Demirtas (6’5” outside hitter/opposite) who did get to travel during the 2021 season as well.
We also know of two 2022 signees: Jackie Matias (5’9”/S/Honolulu /Punahou) and Caylen Alexander (5’11”/OH/Roswell, Ga.). This past weekend, Matias was named to the 2021 New City Nissan Girls Volleyball State Championships D1 All-Tournament Team. Alexander is a 2021 AVCA Third-Team All-America selection. Recently, Hawaii has done quite well with finding players that are in the transfer portal. Only time will tell if there is another addition or two ahead of the upcoming season.
Although just two middles on the roster (after both Tiffany Westerberg and Braelyn Akana were converted to the right side), there is a lot of depth (albeit untested) on both pins. Who emerges as the OH1? Who will be that second outside hitter? Who will team with Amber Igiede as the second middle blocker? Which player will be that top serving/defensive specialist? Could UH go back to a 6-2 system to utilize all of this depth on the right side?
And then there is the schedule. A 20-match conference season doesn’t leave that much room for non-conference scheduling. Facing both Utah and San Diego at the 2021 Utah Classic was a strong boost to the RPI and Strength of Schedule for UH. The ability to schedule Utah Valley (who ended up winning the WAC Tournament) also helped. Even with one of the best home court advantages and the ability to turn a profit by staying home for non-conference tournament, might we see another non-conference road trip to test the team ahead of its conference slate? Only time will tell.
Finding that consistent, terminal hitter coupled with scheduling tough and ultimately winning those matches against ranked teams will not only get UH back into the Top 25 rankings, but will also provide future opportunities to host a subregional, make a Final Four and ultimately raise the trophy as National Champions.