On a cold January afternoon, a weather-tattered mini-van with Texas license plates pulls up to a south-suburban Chicago hotel, not too far down the street from WeatherTech headquarters and its popular factory store — if you are into form-fitting vehicle floor mats and the like.
From the winter precipitation/salt-caked van (likely a ride share) emerges multiple members of the Hawai’i men’s volleyball team armed with to-go lunch boxes in plastic bags from nearby food establishments — the glamorous road life of collegiate athletics, right?
On this particular day, the high temperature reached 30 degrees with a maximum wind speed of 18 miles per hour, a far cry from the 80-degree blissful (with 66-degree dew point) reading back home in Honolulu. As players later flooded out of two elevators and booked into waiting rental vehicles to head over to seven-mile-away Lewis University for a full practice, they were armed with freshly-minted thigh-length Under Armour grey winter jackets emblazoned with the Hawai’i logo. And they had winter ski caps that came in handy with the area living up to the Windy City moniker during the team’s stay.
But cold, winter weather and time-zone travel challenges be damned, it was business as usual for the nation’s top-ranked men’s team and 2019 NCAA runner-up, which came out of an ambitious four-match road trip in five nights to Illinois and Tennessee unscathed at 4-0, ready to continue its quest to get back to the NCAA national championship match (in May at George Mason in Fairfax, Virginia).
Hawai’i starts this week 9-0 (now 37-3 beginning last season) after taking down Lewis and Loyola-Chicago each in four sets during the Illinois portion of its trip that started with an overnight flight out of Honolulu on the Tuesday preceding the Lewis match.
In Tennessee, the Rainbow Warriors swept through Lincoln Memorial and then Conference Carolinas’ King. Hawai’i won those six sets by an average of seven points each — a basket full of blowouts in rally-scoring parlance.
“There is a lot to like about this group,” said longtime Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade, who sports a 190-108 mark in 11 seasons at the helm in Honolulu after serving on women’s legend Dave Shoji’s Rainbow Wahine staff for 11 years (with a three-year detour as Pacific’s head women’s coach thrown in).
“We have been fortunate to have guys come through the program the last five or six years who have laid a groundwork with culture and how to treat each other and take everything under their responsibility whether that’s in the classroom, the weight room or doing extra reps. We have seen great development from guys on the roster. With this group we have guys who have been her four and five years and are doing a great job mentoring all the young guys we have. They are a lot of fun to be around. They are good dudes and pretty good volleyball players.”
The numbers back up the good volleyball player part.
Through those nine matches Hawai’i holds a 383-301 kills advantage over its opponents. The Warriors are hitting .388 as a team, while holding foes to an anemic .190. The news is equally good on the line, where Hawai’i has out-aced opponents 65-26 and has uncorked 155 more serves than its nine opponents (an under-the-radar number of significance). Blocking is stellar as well (86.0 to 45.5). Hawai’i ranks second in the country in hitting percentage and third in blocks.
“We have some nice arms, decent size and guys who have played a lot of volleyball and are pretty well-skilled, said Wade, whose teams have been to the NCAA semifinals or better in two of the last three years.
The Warriors reached the NCAA final last year for the third time in program history.
“We talk a lot about being efficient and we work on that a lot. A lot of people and teams can be productive, but historically those who are the most productive and most efficient, i.e. reducing the number of errors and making the other team earn their 25 points, are the ones who succeed,” Wade said. “This group has been pretty good at it.”
In terms of total errors (attack, service, serve-reception, blocking and ball-handling), Hawai’i again holds the numbers edge at 244-347.
Senior middle blocker Pat Gasman, fifth in the nation in blocks per set, credits Hawai’i’s strong start to the makeup of the roster where five players have 30 or more kills. They’re led by Bulgarian Rado Parapunov’s 104 (4.16 per set), and he’s fifth in the country in points per set. Hawai’i has four players who either have 10 aces (Parapunov and Pat Gasman) or are quickly encroaching on that total, and three players already have 20 or more total blocks (Gasman, Parapunov and Brazilian and freshman Guilherme Voss).
“We have depth,” said Gasman, a product of Clovis, California. “The practice gym is wild. We’ll play a five-set match in practice and go head to head at full speed. We get that same competitiveness in practice as we do in the matches.
“We have the arms guys who get the ball, guys like Rado and Colton (Cowell). We have the tough block that can put it down. It helps that I get the ball where I want it. When that happens with us, we’re usually pretty good in that situation.”
Cowell, a senior outside hitter from Maui, also is a fan of the team’s talent cache.
“We have the depth and we the ability to have multiple guys come off the bench and play at a high level,” he said. “The athletes on our roster all bring different aspects to the game. We have guys in multiple positions performing at high levels every night.”
Cowell said another key strength is the simple fact the Warriors are battle-tested.
“Our No. 1 ability is being able to overcome adversity. It’s a significant factor,” he said. “We play a lot of competitive teams and a couple we haven’t seen before and a couple where we have never played at an away gym before. We’ve had some strong showings. You have to step up the intensity, and our ability to overcome whatever standard of level is being performed has been the key to us winning matches.”
Fellow redshirt-senior outside James Anastassiades (Huntington Beach, California) says because of the program Wade has in place, tradition has spawned a certain mindset that is passed on year to year.
“This all has been building,” Anastassiades said. “I’m a fifth-year senior and Pat and Colton are fifth-year seniors. We have been fortunate to learn from players before us about how important the team concept is, how important work ethic is and how important it is to be all-in with this program.
“The players before us have set such a great foundation for us that we have been able to learn from it and have been able to pass it down. Every year a new freshman class comes in, we make sure they know what it really means to be on this team, and that has set a really high standard.”
But success, Anastassiades stressed, also has a non-visible aspect to it.
“We are grateful we have these amazing players who give it 100 percent in practice and matches,” he said. “A lot of people just see us on one night, one match and see an overall great season, but it’s the hours and hours of practice that people don’t see that have built us up to where we are today. The hours we have spent getting better is why we are where we are.”
This year’s crew
Hawai’i’s roster has a worldly flavor to it with five international players, plus eight from California, six from the Hawai’ian islands (four from O’ahu, one from Maui, one from Kaua’i) and two from Illinois.
Wade, whose team won the Big West tournament last year, took some time to talk about what goes into the recruiting process with the men’s program.
“The recruiting process is something we take a lot of time with and pay attention to,” he said. “It’s making sure they understand what they are signing up for. Regardless of where they are from, we go to meet them and their family and learn more about them. That’s important. We’re both making big decisions here. The more information we have, the better decisions you can make. We explain what the program is about and what is expected of them. It’s a big part of this.
“It doesn’t matter where your driver’s license or passport is from. It’s more important to get guys who want to get to work and want to work at being the best in everything. They take the academic component seriously and they are here to be the best. We have the best of the best in players who have played at a global level, have represented the U.S., or wherever they are from, at the highest level of international volleyball. The volleyball stuff is a good place to start, but these are people who have great fathers and mothers and families, and also embrace the academic piece.”
Wade discounts the notion it’s harder to recruit players to Hawai’i due to its location. “It’s hard to recruit everywhere,” he said. “Hawai’i has a unique set of challenges. We are the most isolated place on Earth, but I think it’s hard to get someone to go to Lincoln, Nebraska, initially. You have to figure out what you are about and what you want to sell and try to find the matchup.
“That’s the way I have always looked at it. At the end of all of it, if someone tells me we are too far away — and we get that from kids in California even, really? — this is not a place for you. We get people who are a little more adventurous. If someone at the end tells me we are too far, then I have screwed up. It’s not something I can control. It’s the most isolated place there is. You are not going home for the weekend.”
In terms of his own personal journey, Wade had only planned on coaching in Hawai’i for a short bit. “I came to Hawai’i in 1995,” he said. “I went originally for four months and it has turned out a little differently than that. I’m the luckiest guy on Earth. I married an amazing woman from there and have three incredible kids. I so love being part of the community. Whatever we can give back to the community and embrace the Hawai’ian language and culture, and there is a lot of it inside our program, whether it’s messaging or symbolism, we’re going to do that. We have people from all over the world. To perpetuate Hawai’i language and culture, and then have people go off all over the world after learning something more about Hawai’i beyond the beautiful weather and the beaches, I think that is really important. For me, it’s been a life-changing experience.”
Anastassiades is thankful the team has a coach such as Wade, plus assistants Milan Zarkovic (seven years at Hawai’i), Josh Walker (former UH player, five years as a coach) and Chad Giesseman (three years on staff; notable local prep volleyball coach).
“Our coaching staff is great,” Anastassiades said. “They are the best coaches you will find in America. To have those tools and to be able to pick their brains whenever you can is amazing.”
The traveling component
Wade’s squad has never shied away from a trip to the mainland.
“We’ve always worn it as a badge of courage to go and play an NBA-like schedule where we play four matches in five nights,” he said. “These guys are pretty young and resilient. You have to get your head wrapped around it. In October, we had a nutty schedule out to California to prep for this.
“In terms of efficiency, you have to be good and know when to rest, when to get fueled and when it’s time to go, you go. There’s not a lot of extra stuff going on. We stay focused. For us, it’s not like we get in a car and go down the 405 and play someone. That’s not our world. When we get on a plane and go, especially with these non-conference games, we want to get a little more bang for the buck. Going to play at a few different sites is kind of our norm.”
On this particular road trip, the Warriors took a redeye out of Honolulu on a Tuesday night and arrived in Chicago mid-day Wednesday. The team went to Lewis that Wednesday night for a light workout and then practiced hard Thursday ahead of its match against Dan Friend’s always-tough Flyers squad the next evening.
On Saturday morning, it was a drive north to get to a hotel closer to the Loyola campus, then serving and passing mid-day at Loyola ahead of the match against the Ramblers that Saturday evening at the Gentile Center.
On Sunday, the team flew to Tennessee ahead of a Monday night match at Lincoln Memorial, followed by a drive on Tuesday to Bristol to play King that evening.
“We are playing two matches in the state of Tennessee and we are staying in two different cities with hotels in Virginia and Kentucky,” Wade said from a darkened under-renovation conference room at their south-suburban Chicago hotel. “We aren’t staying in the state of Tennessee. I guess it’s the Cumberland Gap.
“We have played these teams before at our place. Dan has brought Lewis out by us a couple times. We like to return the favor and then they will come back out to us. Both (Lewis and Loyola) are asking. We’ll get both of them back out. It’s good for the athletes to get out and see other places in the U.S., and see other facilities. It’s good for the sport to get more of these non-conference road experiences for everybody.”
Gasman embraced the Chicago-area cold.
“It’s nothing you don’t see in Hawai’i,” he said with a big laugh. “It’s a little cold here. We got these nice, puffy coats to keep us warm. They feel like someone is constantly giving you a hug.”
Cowell added: “It’s quite cold and windy, but it gives you that little extra adrenaline rush.”
Anastassiades noted the secret to enduring long road trips is two-fold.
“You have to embrace it,” he said. “It’s tough with the time-zone changes and the 12 hours overnight to get here-the sleep last night was a little funky. The key is to listen to your body. Take the rest you need to rest, and then try and get on a routine as much as possible. When you are on the road and in a hotel all day it would be easy to sleep in, but you have to move around and do some schoolwork — we have mandatory study hall on the road — and try and stay on a routine you would do back in Hawai’i.”
Gasman also knows wherever the Warriors go, the team staring at them on the other side of the net will have something to prove.
“Lewis played us well and so did Loyola,” he said after the Loyola match. “We will get everybody’s best game, but we aren’t going to let up. We will give them our best.”
Wade said this type of travel is nothing new. Last year, Hawai’i played in a tournament in BYU and then dropped into California, ending up with six matches in a week.
Hawai’i will become familiar with California once again in the next few months. They have trips to Stanford, Northridge and Pepperdine, and Santa Barbara still on tap.
The march to Fairfax
Wade and company aren’t shying away from the team’s No. 1 national ranking.
“For me, it’s a reflection of all the work of these guys who have come through the program,” Wade said. “I’m blessed to have an amazing staff that has been able to be kept together for a while. The first four or five years of the program there was a lot of turnover with assistants. To be able to keep these guys together is very important. It’s something you don’t see throughout college athletics in terms of keeping staff together and be able to keep building and keep getting better at what you do. And then you have the support staff and our fan base is unbelievable.
“It’s crazy how much our community embraces what we do and they appreciate the product we put on the floor. They support us like nowhere else in the world.
“We are motivated. We have been right there the last four or five years. The mindset hasn’t changed and the mantra of what we are focused on and what we are doing continues to be the same.”
Gasman said there most definitely is a little extra pep in the step this winter. “Absolutely,” he said. “We lost our final match last year. That definitely gives you motivation to get in the gym. What happened at the end of the season is not going to happen this year. We are extremely determined this year. What is going to help us win those games is to keep getting better every day.”
Cowell added: “We lost in the national championship match last year. We are very aware of what we did, but I think that has set us up to be successful. We understand the standard and we know what we have to do to get to that level.”
And for Hawai’i that level involves again playing in the final match of the year on George Mason’s campus in May.