Sunday, December 4, 2022
By: Tiff Well
Winning conference and earning that automatic bid into the NCAA Championship. It sure does take a lot of the nerves away when you’re not on bubble watch and having to sweat it out on Selection Sunday. It was a whirlwind of a last regular season road-trip for the Rainbow Wahine. An emotional, five-set win at UCSB to clinch the conference title on one night, followed by a four-set win at CSUN, then an early morning wake up call to catch a flight back home, only to then head straight to campus to watch the Selection Show. What was expected was to see their name flash on the screen. What may not have been expected to see was a number next to their name…8…as in an 8-seed.
For the first time this season, the Selection Committee seeded the Top 32 teams in order “to generate better and competitive play/parity and to avoid imbalance.” Seeded eight meant Hawai`i would be in a subregional hosted by a number one seed (and a top 4 seed overall in the tournament). And with the four one-seeds being Texas, Louisville, Wisconsin and Stanford, it would be a daunting second-round match for the Bows…if they could get past the first-round. Texas, Kentucky, Wisconsin and California…in terms of travel and flight itinerary, the two locales that would be the most ideal would be Stanford and Texas. But as Hawai`i fans know all too well that more often than not, the NCAA very rarely gives Hawai`i a fair placing. Seeing the Stanford quarter of the bracket pop up, the Bows saw themselves as an 8-seed taking on an LSU (15-13) team that finished seventh in the SEC. The Tigers were one of 32 at-large bid recipients and of those 32, 27 of them came from the Power Five Conferences. A team that prides itself on floor defense with athletic middles and an OH1 (Outside Hitter 1) that had an ability to take over a match, the matchup wasn’t as ideal as UH would have liked.
Making their 29th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament and 40th overall, it also marked the second straight year UH would face an SEC team in the opening round (last year, UH faced Mississippi State). Just the week prior, UH was in California for the fifth time this season. On the other hand, LSU hadn’t traveled west of the Central Time Zone. UH entered the match 35-4 all-time in first-round matches.
The match started out well for UH…that is if you could actually see it. “Human error” caused the first-half of the entire match to be blacked out to those in the 50th state trying to watch it on ESPN+. Down 16-17 in the first set, UH used a 9-4 closing run to win 25-21. It was working quite well offensively for the Bows as they hit .378 (17-3-37) and sided out at 72% (16-22) off first-ball contact. And then one of the bugaboos that has hurt this team all season long reared its ugly face again. Lengthy scoring runs in sets two and three helped LSU take a 2-1 lead in the match (25-19, 25-20). Set 2 saw the scoreboard go from a 12-10 LSU lead to a 20-15 LSU advantage, while set 3 featured a 13-12 Hawai`i lead that eventually turn into a 24-18 LSU lead.
The UH offense in Set 2 never quite got out of the gate as the Bows recorded 15 hitting errors. LSU had only 8 kills. As Coach Robyn Ah Mow stated in the post-game press conference, you won’t win a set when giving the other team 15 points. With the season on the line, UH got Set 4 within a point at 16-15 after an emphatic block by the lone senior Mylana Byrd. That’s as close as UH got as a service error disappointingly ended UH’s season in the first round. One and done in the NCAA Tournament for just the fifth time in program history.
Riley Wagoner had a monster match, 20 kills and 17 digs. It was the first time since 2016 (Nikki Taylor vs USC) that a Hawai`i player had 20 kills in an NCAA match. In totaling 700 kills as a Rainbow Wahine, Wagoner picked up her eighth double-double of the season. For the 27th time in 29 matches played this season, Amber Igiede had double-digit kills (16). Her .314 hitting performance lowered her season hitting percentage to .433, but that number is now the single-season UH record, breaking Angelica Ljungquist’s .417 hitting percentage in the 1996 season. Caylen Alexander put down 15 kills, marking the 16th time the freshman had ten or more kills. UH out-dug the Tigers 71-66, but that was the only stat category in which UH led. LSU out-hit (.215 to .158), out-aced (2-0) and out-blocked (14-8) the Bows en route to their first NCAA win since 2014. Virtually no offense came from the right side, another problem for the team through the course of the season.
The Bows began the season in the Texas heat with three straight losses (including the opener against an SEC team) and ended the year with a loss to an SEC team in the cooler weather on The Farm in Northern California. UH earned resume building wins against Texas State and USC to end the non-conference at 3-5. Many wondered if the Bows would even finish in Top 3 or 4 of the Big West after how the non-conference went. Seven straight wins to open up conference play quieted some of the doubters. A key injury to starting Libero Tayli Ikenaga was a factor in UH’s lone loss of conference play, a 3-1 setback at Cal Poly. A regular season sweep of the Gauchos (whom UH lost to twice a season) aided UH to a third-straight Big West Conference regular season title. At 22-7, UH recorded their 42nd 20-win season.
The conference champs earned a massive haul of the Big West awards. Player of the Year went to Amber Igiede, marking the third-consecutive season UH won the award. The inaugural Setter of the Year went to Kate Lang. Breaking Hanna Helvig’s five-time Freshman of the Week record (she would have six in 2022), it was no surprise that Freshman of the Year went to Caylen Alexander. Robyn Ah Mow was named Coach of the Year for a third-consecutive season, becoming the second back-to-back-to-back winner and first since 1982-84 (UCSB’s Kathy Gregory).
As noted by many of the players after the loss to LSU, the 2023 season begins now. UH is set to return 14 of its 15-player roster. With the graduation to Mylana Byrd, Punahou alumna Jackie Matias will see her role increase to become Kate Lang’s understudy. We’re still uncertain of the health of Anna Kiraly, who was never medically cleared to participate at all during the season. But it was very nice that amongst the UH travel party approved by the NCAA, Kiraly was included as this was the first road-trip she went on during the 2022 season. We know of two coming in for the 2023 season: Stella Adeyemi (5’11”, OH, Papillion, Neb.) and Tali Hakas (5’11”, OH, Kfar Saba, Israel). And with the transfer portal, you just never know. Already three players from the Big West Conference have entered the portal. And with eight of the 14 returning players having senior status, against expect a loaded non-conference schedule with the potential for travel as well. Playing the RPI game is huge, especially for those Mid-Major programs. Case in point is this year’s NCAA Tournament. 15 of the 16 schools that hosted the subregionals advanced to the regionals. All four number one seeds advanced out of their hosted subregional to again, host the regional.
Wrapping up year eight as the voice of Rainbow Wahine Volleyball for ESPN Honolulu and CBS 1500, I just want to say thank you. Thank you to our amazing sponsors that make each broadcast possible. Thank you to all of my coworkers who do it all (from selling to the digital components to being in the control room of our studios during the broadcast) to help bring Rainbow Wahine volleyball to you, the fan and listener. Thank you to the fans for always supporting this program, both home and away. Thank you to the family members that reach out to us during the season. It really is something special to meet and get to know so many fans and family members, whether it’s at the arena, in the parking lot, in the airport or even on the plane.
We’ll pack up the 2022 season and head into the offseason. Hope to see y’all in 2023.