At least they’re playing.
A year after the Big West canceled the women’s volleyball season, Hawai’i is understandably excited to get things going.
But there won’t be any fans at UH home matches, nor at the school’s football or soccer games this fall. That decision by city and county officials came down this past week.
Regardless, Hawai’i, which won the conference in 2019, is the Big West preseason favorite in 2021 and fourth-year coach Robyn Ah Mow is ready to pick up where her team left off.
That was in 2019, when the Rainbow Wahine finished 26-2 (14-2 in the Big West), falling to Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament round of 16.
The future for 2020 was bright, but …
Like most of the nation, the Big West put fall sports on hold for 2020, but the rest of Division I was gearing up to compete last spring, the conference announced in December it was canceling women’s volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, and men’s and women’s cross country.
Ah Mow said it was particularly hard on her two freshmen, setter Kate Lang, who is from Keller, Texas, and Anna Kiraly, a 6-foot-3 middle blocker from Hungary (Ah Mow didn’t know if she is related to USA coach Karch Kiraly, whose family is from Hungary).
This year they are still listed as freshman and are joined by five other newcomers.
Some may make an impact, but the older players make up the core group.
That starts with senior Brooke Van Sickle, senior middle Skyler Williams, and sophomore middle Amber Igiede.
Igiede, a 6-3 product of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had a big-time freshman season. She was second on the team to since-graduated Hanna Hellvig in kills with 211 (2.25/set), hit .355, and led in blocks with 125, 20 solo.
“Amber played on the beach and her all-around game has just evolved. She’s passing, playing defense, when there’s a ball off the block she can go at least 10 feet to get it,” Ah Mow said. “Her task will be getting used to the faster-tempo ball versus waiting on the beach.”
Williams, 6-1, was right behind with 109 blocks, 12 solo, and the product of Bellflower, California, was fifth in kills with 186, 2.19/set, and she hit .393.
Van Sickle, undersized at 5-9 and who had more than her share of injuries in her first two years at Oregon, was still banged up in 2019. Still, the product of Battle Ground, Washington, was third for UH in kills with 202 (2.43/set), had 20 aces, and averaged 2.18 digs/set.
“She is very focused,” Ah Mow said. “I’m looking to her for leadership.”
That would come in handy on a team with seven freshmen. Three of them are foreigners who Ah Mow said she met when they arrived on campus. 6-3 right side Annika de Goede from the Netherlands, 6-3 outside Martyna Leoniak from Poland, and 6-5 pin outside/right side Ilayda Demirtas from Turkey.
Also in the mix is Riley Wagoner, a 6-foot sophomore from Ohio who had 94 kills, 148 digs, and 37 blocks in 2019. Also in the mix are sophomore Tiffany Westerberg, who had 47 kills in 2019, and sophomore Braelyn Akana, Cal Poly transfer Kenra Ham, and perhaps some of the freshmen.
“We have like eight outside hitters, three true middles and two of those outsides could help out in the middle,” said Ah Mow, who starred at Hawai’i and was the captain of the USA team that won silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The setters will be either or both Lang and transfer Myland Byrd, a 6-2 junior from Houston who played two years at Alabama. Her mother, Angie, was a middle at Texas State.
“They’re battling it out,” Ah Mow said.
If she runs a 6-2, Ah Mow said it’s possible the setter could even be opposite the middles. Both setters from the 2019 team, Norene Iosia and Bailey Choy, have moved on.
The libero will likely be junior Kyara Hanawahine, who played in 28 matches in 2019, but junior Janelle Gong and freshman Tayli Ikenaga will compete for the job.
Hawai’i got seven of the 11 first-place votes atop the Big West preseason poll. Cal Poly got the other four. UC Santa Barbara was picked third and Long Beach State fourth.
Hawai’i has a most ambitious preseason schedule. It opens up Friday when Fairfield, Texas A&M, and Marquette all visit for the weekend.
Then UH goes to Utah to play Utah Valley, San Diego, and the home team.
The third weekend USC visits for back-to-back matches and then the Rainbow Wahine have a weekend off before beginning Big West play September 23 at UC Riverside.
“This is going to be a pretty good year for NCAA women,” Ah Mow said. “It’s going to be crazy. People are bringing back their best players.
“Everyone is going to have the same people we saw two years ago and the teams are going to be better, I think the competition is going to be better and it will be pretty interesting.”
One big change for Hawai’i is on Ah Mow’s staff. Her close friend and recruiting coordinator Angelica Ljungqvist, who was also the UH beach coach, left in July. The former UH star returned to her home in Sweden, saying she wanted to be closer to her family.
Subsequently Nick Costello rejoined the staff after two years at Irvine Valley College.