Hawai’i hopes to pack Sheriff Center for its first NCAA Tournament in six years

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Hawaii volleyball 12/2/2019-Hanna Helvig
Hawai’i’s Hanna Hellvig gets one of her 17 kills against Long Beach State last month/Jim Wolf photography

It’s been six years since at-large teams had to fly to Hawai’i for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

But this year the Rainbow Wahine made it impossible for the NCAA selection committee to make them leave home. Hawai’i (26-7), which won the Big West by going 17-1, is the No. 12 seed in the tournament and plays Big Sky-winner Northern Colorado (26-7) on Friday.

The winner gets the winner of the match between West Coast Conference-champion San Diego (24-5) versus Washington State (23-9), an at-large team from the Pac-12. Hawai’i opened the season by beating visiting San Diego in five on August 30.

“Hawai’i is still a viable force in women’s volleyball,” said Dave Shoji, who retired in 2017 after winning 1,202 matches in 42 seasons. He was replaced by one of his former great players, Robyn Ah Mow. “I think we’re still able to recruit some top players, and I think Robyn’s done a tremendous job.

“The future is bright. I think we can play with just about anybody now, and I think the team will be better in the near future as well.

Hawaii volleyball 12/2/2019-Robyn Ah Mow
UH coach Robyn Ah Mow has her team on an 11-win streak going into the NCAA tournament/UH photo

Three-time Olympian Ah Mow went 20-8 her first year, 14-2 in the Big West. The Rainbow Wahine lost in five in the first round to Illinois. Last year, Hawai’i was 18-9, again 14-2 in the Big West, and lost in five again in the first round, this time to Baylor after not only winning the first two sets but losing the fifth 16-14.

“It’s just building every year,” Ah Mow said. “For me and the team and the culture that we’re trying to build at each year. Just work ethic coming in and playing as a team. Just each year, our seniors did what they could and each year they’re just building, the team’s getting better. The cohesiveness of the team, the program and the culture. It’s getting better each year.”

Hawai’i’s not-so-secret weapon is its fan base in the Stan Sheriff Center. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the arena, which has seen more than three million volleyball fans pass through its gates. 

When Hawai’i beat Long Beach State on November 22 to win the Big West title, it did so in front of 10,300 fans. There are college volleyball teams in America that don’t draw that many for an entire season.

“We’re lucky that we’re at home,” Ah Mow said. “I love the girls, they’re awesome. They’re stoked to play at home. We just sold out our senior night. So hopefully our fans will come out and support us again.”

Ah Mow, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist, has shared much of her career with Shoji. She played at Hawai’i from 1993-96, then served as Shoji’s assistant coach from 2011-15. Accordingly, she believes that an Ah Mow team is very similar to a Shoji team.

“I don’t think there’s any difference,” she said.

“Dave was obviously a great coach and he did it for 42 years and  was very successful with four (NCAA) titles and getting to the tournament every year. I played for him. He actually got a little softer, but when I played for him he was grinding. He was working us.”

This year’s Hawai’i team had a very different look.

Three players transferred from Oregon. Brooke Van Sickle is a 5-9 junior from Battle Ground, Washington; Jolie Rasmussen is a 6-2 junior outside hitter from Encinitas, California, and Kyra Hanawahine is a junior defensive specialist from Honolulu.

Van Sickle and Rasmussen were impactful from the get-go but both have been injured. Van Sickle, who moved into Rasmussen’s spot, and has 179 kills (2.24/set), third on the team, and is averaging 2.20 digs. Rasmussen, who played in just 28 sets, averaged 3.43 kills. 

Two big keys are freshmen. 

Hawaii volleyball 12/2/2019-Hanna Hellvig
Hanna Hellvig takes an outside swing for UH against UCLA’s Lexi Hadyrch/UH photo

Hanna Hellvig is a 6-2 outside from Stockholm, Sweden, home of Hawai’i assistant coach Angelica Ljungvist. Hellvig leads the Rainbow Wahine with 324 kills (3.12/set) and averages 1.81 digs and has 72 blocks, eight solo.

Hellvig has a background in indoor, beach, and snow volleyball. Indoors she has competed with the Swedish senior national team for 13 matches, helping her U23 team to a bronze medal in 2018 and a gold at the 2019 Swedish championships. On the beach, she earned U20 Swedish beach-championship gold in 2018 and bronze in 2019. In the snow she won the national championship.

“Hanna’s doing really well,” Ah Mow said. “She’s one of our better players. I was a little bit worried about how she was going to take in the crowd and playing and the atmosphere at home. But she was like, ‘No, coach, I’m good. I play like this all the time.’

“And so she’s done a great job leading us on the offense. We even moved her to the right for a little while and she is doing great.”

The other freshman is Amber Igiede, a 6-3 middle from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and has 193 kills (2.05/set), is hitting .365, and leads with 118 blocks, 19 solo.

“We weren’t sure she was actually going to play this year,” Ah Mow said. “She’s doing a good job blocking laterally, and I think she’s a beast in the middle hitting. She gets up high and hits a heavy ball.” 

Mckenna Ross is the other outside, a 5-10 senior from Aliso Viejo, California, who actually began her career as a DS. Ross has 167 kills (2.14/set), 122 digs and 20 blocks, one solo.

“I told her, ‘Hey, you’ve got hops, you can hit for us.’ She’s been a great help in the last two years, she had a big match against Illinois my first year, and also against Baylor last year,” Ah Mow said. “She did a great job, and has been holding down our passing as well.”

Skyler Williams is a 6-1 junior middle from Bellflower, California. Williams has 175 kills (1.90/set), is hitting .388, and has nine assists, 28 digs, and 100 blocks, 11 solo.

“She’s developed a lot in the last two years,” said Ah Mow. “This year she’s doing great with her blocking, and she’s ramped up her hitting as well.”

Hawai’i is well known for dynamic, athletic setters, and this year it has two. Norene Iosia is a 5-11 setter out of renowned Redondo Union High School and hails from Torrance, California. Iosia has 577 assists (5.55/set) and has 72 kills, hitting .249, and 44 aces, 293 digs (2.82/set) and 30 blocks, two solo.

The other side of the 6-2 is senior 5-9 Bailey Choy, a grad transfer from Utah, where she started for the Utes for three years. Choy returns home after playing her prep ball for ‘Iolani in Honolulu. 

Choy has 524 assists (5.04/set), 23 aces and 197 digs (1.89/set).

“We’ve been able to rally from injuries, and we all just do what we can. I know we’re going to face a lot of taller teams,” Ah Mow said. “Our little 5-8, 5-9 hitters and my 5-11 center hitter, we just got to keep going.”

Hawai’i is on an 11-match win streak going into the NCAA tournament. Its last loss was at Cal Poly on October 11.

“I think the last few games that we played going into the tournament, the girls actually did pick up confidence. They did really well in the beginning. And for a little bit they slumped for a week or a week and a half or so. And then had to regroup, check out some videos, see what’s going on and work on whatever we need to work on. And I think their confidence is back.”

Northern Colorado was the dominant team in the Big Sky. San Diego beat BYU twice this year to win the WCC and Washington State is coming off its big victory at Washington.

“We’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Ah Mow said. “I don’t know anything about Northern Colorado, but they’re in the tournament with a good record in the Big Sky. 

“We played San Diego earlier this year, they’re coached well, they’re a great team. And Washington State, they’re a good team too, coached well by Jen (Greeny).”

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