The biggest regular-season showdown of the year is on Friday night in the Pyramid.
And Saturday, too.
That’s because unbeaten Hawai’i, ranked No. 1 in the AVCA Division I-II Men’s Poll and playing with a purpose like few others, goes to second-ranked Long Beach State in a Big West winner-take-all showdown.
Hawai’i — with a lot to prove after getting left at the NCAA altar in 2018 — is not only 25-0 overall and 8-0 in conference play, but 75-1 in sets. Long Beach State is 23-1, also 8-0, and the defending NCAA champion.
While the Big West concludes its regular season — No. 3 UC Santa Barbara and No. 9 UC Irvine and No. 11 CSUN and San Diego also play two-matches back-to-back — three other conferences enter postseason tournament play.
The MIVA tournament starts Friday with top-seeded Lewis playing host to No. 8 Quincy and second-seeded Loyola home for No. 7 Ohio State. Third-seeded Purdue Fort Wayne entertains No. 6 Lindenwood and No. 4 McKendree gets No. 5 Ball State.
The MPSF tournament begins Saturday with second-seeded UCLA playing host to seventh-seeded Concordia, fifth-seeded BYU at No. 4 Stanford, and No. 6 Grand Canyon at third-seeded USC, while top-seeded Pepperdine waits for the April 18 semifinals.
The EIVA has no ranked teams, but there’s quite a bit of jockeying going on for tournament positioning as the league teams play for an automatic NCAA bid. First-place Princeton plays host to the two teams tied for second place, two games, Saint Francis on Friday and Penn State on Saturday. George Mason, alone in fourth and three games off the lead, goes to Harvard on Friday.
And Conference Carolinas, which also gets an automatic bid, starts its tournament Saturday. Top-seeded Barton is home for Erskine and second-seeded King gets Emmanuel. Also, Limestone is at Mount Olive and North Greenville is at Belmont Abbey.
Back to Hawai’i, a team so hyper-competitive that one of its biggest competitive challenges of the year was go-kart racing.
“The next day after the go-karts, we were more sore than after any of their games we’ve played because the guys were so competitive,” Hawai’i senior Joe Worsley said. “We were getting yelled at because guys are slamming into each other because they just wanted to win.
“This team is so competitive. You come to practice, it’s the same way.”
That’s the way that 10th-year coach Charlie Wade likes it.
“It’s a special group of young men. They’ve been through a lot together, they’ve worked hard, they’ve excelled on the volleyball court, and they’ve worked hard on the practice court and in the weight room,” said Wade, 177-105 as coach of the Rainbow Warriors.
“And in the class room as well. The cumulative grade-point average of the starters is about a 3.6, they’re great members of our community, and I’m really proud of the amount of work that they’ve put into being professional in every part of their life.”
And they’re part of a team with a lot to prove.
Last year, Hawai’i finished 19-8 and lost out in the Big West title match to Long Beach State but fully expecting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. None was forthcoming.
Instead, the bids went to league rival UC Irvine, which Hawai’i beat two out of three times last season, including in the Big West Tournament, and UCLA of the MPSF. UCI lost a play-in match to Ohio State, and UCLA ended up losing in five to Long Beach State in the NCAA final.
“Leaving us out of the national championship was criminal, in my estimation,” Wade said. “We were the only team to beat Long Beach, and you look at all the criteria that we had, we should have been in it. But what we took out of it was we didn’t win enough and that we were going to control our own destiny (in 2019).
“This group started training for this year literally the next day. They’ve been on a mission ever since.”
Worsley, a 6-1 setter from Moraga, Calif., whose brother, Gage is a sophomore libero on the team, said the team embraced the mission.
“The coaches made it clear that they wanted us to flip to a new year and that it was going to be a different journey, different year for us, it’s still holding on to the same emotions that we had at the end of last year,” Joe Worsley said.
“We definitely always have that at the back of our mind. Our whole mind-set every game this year is we went into a few games last year, ‘Oh, we’ve kind of secured it already, we don’t necessarily need to win this,’ but this year, it’s every night out, we need to win every single match.”
For that matter, Hawai’i won its first 74 sets before UC Santa Barbara broke the streak last Saturday. Hawai’i still beat the No. 3-ranked team 25-16, 25-21, 23-25, 25-19.
“We’ve never talked about the streak since the beginning, and why start now? We’re just trying to win each match we get in,” Worsley said.
“To be honest I didn’t even realize that whole thing until half-way through our season, and everybody started talking about it … But the biggest thing for us is that we need to make sure that we win the match.”
Of course Hawai’i is talented, but it is also experienced. Its leading attacker is Rado Parapunov, a junior from Bulgaria, and Stijn van Tilburg, a senior from the Netherlands.
“Stijn has the experience,” Parapunov said.” He earned first-team All-American honors on the right side, and the left side. He’s the guy that keeps the team calm. Even if we get a few bad calls, he’s the one that settles the team down. He’s there for every single one of us, and we know that we have him and we have Joe in the difficult moments, and we know that he will clean up for us.”
The 6-foot-8 van Tilburg has 262 kills, averaging 3.97 per set, and is hitting .487. He has 18 aces and 34 blocks, three solo.
“Stijn’s a senior,” Worsley adds, “He knows he’s on his way out here soon, we definitely have team goals this year, and coming in together, he and I have kind of had our minds set on what we want to do and what we want to accomplish, and that’s a more urgent feeling.”
The 6-10 Parapunov leads with 301 kills, 4.43 per set, is hitting .484, and has 36 aces and 67 blocks, seven solo.
“His leadership speaks more to his play,” Wade said. “He’s not necessarily going to be the loudest guy on the court, or in the locker room, but everybody knows that when we need him the most, he’s going to be there.
“He’s a lefty hammer. He’s a big-time six-rotation point scorer. He’s worked on his body as well, his blocking and serving are much improved, and he’s a dominant six-rotation point-scorer for us.”
Worsley keeps middle blockers honest with his ability to set just about any ball from any position.
“I say this to everybody that I talk to about this team,” Worsley said. “Our hitters, especially Rado and Stijn, they make it so easy on me. I can throw the ball in any place in their area and there’s a good chance that they’re going to score on that swing, because they’re so experienced, and so intelligent about where they swing, how they swing, and they put so much into their game.
“Those two guys make it so easy to set and run the offense, and they help out other guys. They open up other areas of the court for our middles or other hitters to take swings. Those guys have put in a lot of work and are obviously having really good years, they make it really easy to run the offense that we do.”
Worsley has 829 assists with 19 aces and 123 digs. What’s more, he has the Warriors firing on all cylinders with a remarkable team hitting percentage of .462.
“I think Joe Worsley is the best player in college volleyball right now,” Wade said. “If one guy’s hitting .500, hats off to that guy, but when the whole team is, it’s because of the setter. There’s no question that he’s a great setter, he’s not only great at his position, but a great leader and he really does a lot for our team in practice and on and off the court.”
“The reason that everybody is doing such a good job is that Joe Worsley is the guy in charge. He knows how to run the ship, the ship is moving forward, and it just makes it easy for the rest of us.
“He expects as lot from us, which I like, he’s the hardest worker in the gym that I’ve ever met and probably ever will. I think he’s the best player in America. Nobody else has the same dedication. He’s ready for every situation. He’s a leader, he knows what to say to everybody at all times. I’m so happy and proud to be his friend and teammate.
Junior Patrick Gasman, a 6-10 middle from Clovis, Calif., is hitting .497 with 107 blocks, 12 solo.
“Patrick’s worked hard on his game,” Wade said. “He’s evolving into a dominant blocker. He leads the nation by a pretty good clip.”
Dalton Solbrig is Hawai’i’s other middle, a 6-6 senior from Lindenhurst, Ill. Solbrig had two 1.000 hitting games, one against NJIT January 10, and another against Princeton March 22nd. He is hitting .561 for the season.
“Dalton Solbrig was a guy that has really worked on his game and his overall physical physique,” Wade said. “He’s fast and uses his foot speed in a lot of different situations.”
Undersized junior Colton Cowell, just 6-2, is the other outside. The Hawai’ian has 153 kills and it hitting .401. He has 72 digs and 39 blocks, seven solo.
“Colton Cowell is one of the greatest stories in volleyball this year,” Wade said. “ He’s a kid from Maui, he’s a walk-on back-row specialist that really didn’t play high-level volleyball and still is learning every night out. But he’s put 45 pounds of muscle on his frame, he jump-touches 11-7, and he is an international-level receiver and attacker. I’m really proud of all the work that he’s put into his game.”
Libero Gage Worsley, who was a member of the USA Junior National team, has 198 digs.
“Gage Worsley has been the best libero in every match we’ve played this year,” Wade said. “I would dare to say that he’s the best libero in college volleyball this year. We knew he could play at a high level coming out, he had to sit behind a first-team All-American (Larry Tuileta) last year, but he’s worked really hard and he’s playing at a really high level.”
After this big Long Beach road trip, Hawai’i goes home and is the host team for the Big West Tournament that starts April 18. And talk about a home-court advantage, the Rainbow Warriors played before 10,300 in the Stan Sheriff Center last week when UCSB came to town.
“Hawai’i’s got the greatest fans in the world, and we play in a beautiful venue, I know our fans and our team are really looking forward to it.”
Last year, Long Beach State went to Hawai’i this same weekend and they split, with Long Beach winning on Friday night in five (22-20 in the fifth) and the Rainbow Warriors winning on Saturday in five. Long Beach then swept Hawai’i in the Big West in the Pyramid.
No wonder Parapunov is ready to get to this weekend and then postseason play.
“First of all, we don’t think that the regular season is that important. It’s all about the Big West tournament and the national championships,” he said. “The way to get there is through the regular season, so we do our best to prepare for every single team, and respect every single team as if we’re playing for a national championship.
“We know that we’re not done yet, no matter how many sets you win, it doesn’t matter until you have a championship.”