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At The Net: A Rainbow Warrior Volleyball Blog by Tiff Wells | NCAA Volleyball Tournament | Week 16

By: Tiff Wells

Multiple flights needed to get to the East Coast, the two-time defending National Champions arrived on Quarterfinal Tuesday to live scout their future Semifinal opponent. Watching Penn State and Ohio State live, the Rainbow Warriors knew they would have a second chance to play Penn State, one of the two teams that beat them during the regular season. Seeing your future opponent live is one thing, but having actual film of a match you played against them earlier in the season really helps. Playing on the East Coast was nothing new to this group, as they had played three matches in North Carolina this past January. 

As UH practiced on Wednesday, they also received multiple All-American awards from the AVCA. A program record six players received awards, including three named to the first team (Jakob Thelle, Dimitrios Mouchlias and Guilherme Voss). Named to the second team was Spyros Chakas, while Chaz Galloway and Brett Sheward both received Honorable Mention accolades. Also later in the day, UH learned that Associate Head Coach Milan Zarkovic was named AVCA Assistant Coach of the Year for a second time in his tenure at UH. The Bows also learned that for the first time in program history, a setter was named the AVCA National Player of the Year. UH has had three players in its past receive this award: Yuval Katz, Costas Theocharidis (two times) and Rado Parapunov. Joining that exclusive club is Jakob Thelle.

What started on Sunday with seven teams, the field was reduced to its Final Four as we headed into Semifinal Thursday. Win and move on to Championship Saturday, lose and begin making flight preparations to head back to campus. For the most part, the bracket was pretty even and maybe the most competitive field in the last few years. The top four teams all season long (UCLA, Hawai`i, Penn State and Long Beach) were the final four teams remaining in the bracket. Top seeded UCLA had no problem with Long Beach State as the Bruins easily swept The Beach, getting revenge from last year’s five set loss in the semifinal round. It was also the third time this year that UCLA easily swept Long Beach State. As the Bruins settled in to live scout the second semifinal, two seed Hawai`i and Penn State both took to the floor. Despite being closer to Fairfax, the number of Penn State fans were outnumbered by Warrior Nation. Irvine was painted Green and White two weeks prior during the Big West Championship…Fairfax was painted Greener and Whiter as multiple sections inside EagleBank Arena were full of UH supporters.

A 13-9 deficit in the opening set wasn’t anything UH hadn’t seen all season long. Buoyed by a 7-0 Jakob Thelle run, the Bows took Set 1 25-20. UH hit .409 while PSU hit .037. A tight second set went UH’s way 25-23 to give themselves a 2-0 match lead. The hardest thing to do is end your opponents’ season. With a group of upperclassmen, Penn State took set three 25-16 and then scored five of the final seven points to win set four 25-23, pushing UH to a fifth set, something the Bows had never played in all season long. How would UH respond playing in its first five set match of the season? The Nittany Lions serving strategy of ripping serves came back to haunt them in the fifth set as their first three servers all committed errors. A 6-2 lead for UH was all it needed as the Bows sided out to win 15-10, punching its ticket to its fourth straight National Championship match, something that hadn’t been done the mid to late 90’s when UCLA did it six consecutive seasons (1993-1998). A season-high 25 kills from Dimitrios Mouchlias, a huge double-double performance by Chaz Galloway (11 kills, 12 digs) and a season-best 48 dig performance by the Bows overcame a 21 service error night. Survive and advance and the Bows just did that. Ending an opponents’ season is tough, playing in the semifinal match is even tougher. Doing whatever it takes in the semifinal match just to get to that Championship match, what will you have left?

Playing for and representing a state just hits a little bit differently. Once UH learned it would be playing in Saturday’s National Championship match, more fans began making plans. Flights from the islands and all points from around the country were looking for those airport codes of DCA (Reagan), IAD (Washington DC), BWI (Baltimore) and any other that was close to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. Thursday’s team sendoff from its hotel was one thing…the sendoff on Saturday was even more special. Among those on hand were former Rainbow Warrior All-American/Assistant Coach now Baylor Women’s Volleyball Assistant Coach Josh Walker and former Rainbow Warrior and two-time National Player of the Year Costas Theocharidis who made the eight-hour drive down from Boston. We met fans who had made the drive from Michigan, Kentucky, Massachusetts to support the Bows. Former Bows James Anastassiades and Brett Rosenmeier even wore their jerseys to support their program. They listed the attendance as 6,942. Looking around from our broadcast position, there was one section of UCLA fans, while six or seven were full of Hawai`i fans. Reports of around 2,000 Hawai`i fans made the trek from the islands to Fairfax. It was loud, with many ti leaf and Hawaiian flags to be seen. When in Irvine for the Big West Championship two weeks prior, we mentioned it was SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center East. Fairfax was painted Greener and Whiter, while EagleBank Arena felt like SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center Far East. 

The Bows made history by being the first team since UCLA to make four consecutive finals appearances. Looking to make even more history by winning its third straight National Championship, a feat that hadn’t been done since…UCLA did so by winning four straight in the early 1980s. UH held the lead for most of that first set and it looked good when up 23-20. The Bruins held off two UH set points and behind Ido David’s nine kills, the Bruins took Set 1 28-26. UCLA took a commanding lead at 19-13 and held the advantage at 22-18. Showing the heart of a champion, UH mounted a comeback in what would be one of the most epic sets ever seen (regardless if it was for a championship or not). UH needed a total of seven points, while holding off two set points for UCLA as the Bows held on for a 33-31 set victory to tie the match at one. Putting so much energy and effort to make that comeback and tie the match, just thinking of them playing two nights prior and playing five sets over two hours and 35 minutes, it had to take a toll. Every coach will tell you if you win the serve/pass battle, you probably win the match. UCLA out-aced the Bows 10-3 and even with 9 more service errors (UCLA with 22, UH with 13), the constant service pressure by UCLA had UH hitting more out-of-system than in-system. Down 20-15 in Set 3, UH mounted another comeback to get to 21-19 but that’s the closest they’d get as the Bruins won it 25-21. With their season on the line, the two-time defending champs had set 4 tied at 8 before UCLA took the lead for good. The Bruins won set 4 25-21, setting off a celebration as they won the programs’ 20th National Championship and first since 2006. Receiving All-Tournament accolades from UH were Jakob Thelle and Dimitrios Mouchlias. Thelle also made history as with his one service ace in the match, he became the all-time ace leader for UH with 122. It was also fitting for him to do it with Costas Theocharidis in attendance, as it was both Theocharidis and Pedro Azenha who previously held the record.

A program record 29 wins. A team that had just played in its fourth consecutive National Championship match and a group that has brought its fan base along for another memorable ride. Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy for what transpired throughout the season and of the careers for six young men. UH is special in that it takes homegrown players (Cole Hogland, Kana`i Akana), domestic players (Devon Johnson) and internationals (Jakob Thelle, Dimitrios Mouchlias and Filip Humler) and they come together to represent an entire state and galvanize entire communities. Despite being 4800+ miles from the islands, the players felt the support and love from back home as they played in the 2023 National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball National Championship. Saying thank you one final time, a few hundred fans met the team upon their arrival to campus. It says a lot about what these players have done and what they have meant to a state when even at 7:00 p.m. on a Sunday and with a smaller trophy in tote than the one desired, fans still show up en masse with lei, to take pictures and to just say thank you.

As #WarriorBall23 comes to a close as the Big West regular season co-champs, a Big West tournament championship and National Runner-up finish, you’ll be hearing the names of Thelle, Mouchlias and Hogland playing for clubs around the world and don’t be surprised if a couple of those names will be playing for their country as well. Thank you to those international players in taking a chance in choosing to come and play for Hawai`i. Thank you to those Hawai`i kids who chose to stay home or come back after starting their collegiate career on the mainland and a thank you to those who left home on the continent to come to the islands. 

#GoBows #WarriorBall23 #HawaiiMVB #NCAAMVB