FAIRFAX, Virginia — Even in a high-stakes moment, Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade and Penn State coach Mark Pavlik could laugh about their situation.
During the change-over between the fourth and fifth sets of Thursday night’s national semifinal, the veteran coaches looked at each other and said they couldn’t believe their match was going five sets again.
“It seems like every time we meet them in the national championship tournament, it goes to five,” Penn State coach Mark Pavlik said. “We kind of knew that’s what may have been in the cards.”
After the second-seeded Rainbow Warriors — in front of a large, boisterous, partisan crowd that turned George Mason’s EagleBank Arena into a branch Hawai’ian island — won the first two sets 25-20, 25-23, Penn State rallied to win the next two 25-16, 25-23. Hawai’i, showing the mettle of a two-time defending national champion, gutted out a 15-10 victory in the fifth.
Now Big West-champion Hawai’i (29-2) will play top-seeded MPSF-champion UCLA (30-2) for the NCAA’s National Collegiate Men’s Volleyball Championship at 5 p.m. Saturday. UCLA swept Long Beach State in the first semifinal.
The Hawai’i victory was filled with storylines:
— Penn State’s trio of super seniors — opposite hitter Cal Fisher, setter Cole Bogner and outside hitter Brett Wildman — fighting to keep their stellar careers going for one more night.
— Hawai’i trying to keep its pursuit of a third straight national title intact.
— Hawai’i’ stars Dimitrios Mouchlias, a junior opposite, and senior setter Jakob Thelle trying to finish with another title. Mouchlias announced he is forgoing his final season at Hawai’i to turn pro, and a pro career surely awaits Thelle, the AVCA national player of the year, whose eligibility ends Saturday.
— But perhaps what stood out most was the way Penn State was able to get back into the match with its service pressure.
Wildman kept dealing aces. Seven to be exact. Even junior middle blocker Toby Ezeonu had three aces.
Penn State registered 12 aces in all and forced Hawai’i into a measly .844 receive percentage. That kept Thelle away from the net for most of the third and fourth sets, and he was forced to find his hitters from awkward distances and angles.
“I thought we were prepared to play them from playing Irvine last week,” Wade said. “Very similar with the two super-powerful servers back-to-back, one’s a lefty. They just put a ton of pressure on us, and that really was the difference in the match throughout. We were able to weather the storm and got off to a nice lead there in the fifth set.”
Said Mouchlias: “The third and the fourth sets we lost because we made so many errors. It’s on us. We made so many errors. And they’re a good team. If you do that amount of errors, they’re going to beat you.”
Penn State seemingly had Hawai’i on the brink. The Rainbow Warriors hadn’t been in a fifth set all season, so how they would respond was anyone’s guess.
Wade credited the team’s training staff for keeping everyone healthy.
“I saw fresh legs and good posture and guys really feeling good in the fifth set,” he said. “That speaks to the offseason conditioning and what these guys put themselves through throughout the year.”
Junior outside hitter Chaz Galloway said experience also was a factor. He pointed to Hawai’i’s match with Ball State in last season’s tournament, when the Rainbow Warriors dropped the second and third sets to fall behind 2-1 but rallied to win the final two sets and advance to the final.
“We were in a game that was a battle, it went to five, so I think that experience for the guys, we’ve been there,” said Galloway, who had 11 kills and 12 digs. “We know how to play in a fifth set in a setting like this.”
And they proved it.
After a service error by Wildman gave Hawai’i a 2-1 lead, Spyros Chakas, a junior outside hitter from Greece, put up consecutive points with an ace and a kill from the back row. He later added another kill that put Hawai’i up 14-10 and all but clinched the fifth set.
Pavlik said Hawai’i turned the tables on his team.
“Our DNA is passing and serving,” he said, “and, unfortunately, in game five, I thought Hawai’i won the pass-and-serve battle.”
The fifth set was a big bounce-back for Chakas, who was among the Warriors to struggle on serve receive.
And while one of Hawai’i’s Greek players came up big in the deciding set, the other, Mouchlias, carried the Rainbow Warriors for much of the match.
Mouchlias finished with 25 kills — all in the the first four sets — seemingly coming up with clutch swing after clutch swing to either give the Rainbow Warriors a lead, pull them close or stop a Penn State run. He didn’t post a single kill in the final set — though he did have an ace — but there was no denying his impact on the match.
Wade chuckled when he was asked if he had seen Mouchlias play better.
“Yeah, I’ve seen him play better. I’ve seen him play amazing,” Wade said. “He played amazing tonight, and he played pretty good when we needed him.”
Mouchlias was all smiles when asked not about his performance but getting one final opportunity to play for a championship.
“I didn’t want to leave that early,” he said. “I’m just thankful that I have great teammates that helped me to play one more game.”
Chakas finished with eight kills, an ace and six digs for Hawai’i. Middle blocker Guilherme Voss had two of his six kills in the final set and added six block assists. Thelle finished with 42 assists, eight digs and two kills.
For Penn State, which finished 27-4, there will be no more nights of Wildman, Bogner and Fisher competing on the same court. They went down fighting: Fisher had 14 kills and two aces, Bogner matched Thelle’s 42 assists – perhaps another indication of just how tight this match was – and Wildman had 15 kills to go with his seven aces.
Pavlik, in his 29th season at the helm for the Nittany Lions, nearly choked up when talking about this trio after the match.
“Probably the biggest thing I’m going to miss this year is watching them play,” he said. “It’s been a blast with these guys.
“I think every so often when you’ve been around as long as I have, you’re very fortunate to get one or two teams where you say, ‘Gee, I hope my son grows up to be like these guys.’
“ … I didn’t know how it was going to end, but I didn’t want it to end. And I’ve never been around a team where ‘I love you’ was thrown around so much.”
Understandably, the loss and the mortality of their college careers sting. But Bogner, Wildman and Fisher were confident they gave everything they could to the program and to what turned out to be their last match together.
“I would be disappointed in myself if I said otherwise,” Bogner said.
Added Fisher: “I think we did leave it all out there. I think in any match you could look back at certain plays and say I made this error or something didn’t go the way we wanted it to. But I think we fought to the very end.”
And now comes the end of the season: Hawai’i vs. UCLA for the national championship. Hawai’i won their only meeting this season, in four March 11 in Honolulu.
Mouchlias hopes to send the hundreds of Rainbow Warrior faithful who made the long trip here back to the 50th state with another trophy to admire.
“To be honest, we didn’t expect that many people from Hawai’i to travel here,” Mouchlias said. “When we left the hotel earlier I saw all these people and I was like … that’s why I said I didn’t want to leave that early … You can’t describe the feeling.”
Thank you for sharing the article about the Hawaii vs. Penn State match in the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament. It was an exciting game with Hawaii ultimately coming out on top.
I understand how important this game was for both teams and their fans. The match was closely contested with both teams putting up a strong fight. Hawaii’s victory was a result of their relentless effort and skill on the court.
It’s always great to see such high-level competition in collegiate sports, and I’m sure both teams will continue to strive for excellence in their future matches. Thank you again for sharing this article, and I hope to hear from you again soon.
I can only assume this was an AI response once again.