When we last saw the Hawai’i men’s volleyball team, the Rainbow Warriors were the favorites to win the Big West.
They were ranked No. 1 for the first nine AVCA polls with a 15-1 record. Their only loss came after playing host to second-ranked BYU, when Hawai’i got swept on a Thursday night but bounced back the next day to win in five, 19-17 in the fifth, in a sold-out Stan Sheriff Center.
Next up was a March 13 trip to CSUN to begin Big West play, but, well, you know the rest.
“When we landed at LAX, (assistant coach) Josh Walker came up to me at baggage claim and showed me that the NBA had just suspended their season, and I knew that wasn’t good,” Hawai’i coach Charlie Wade said.
“But we were going to our hotel, we were going to play Cal State Northridge, and it just seemed like every two hours there was some kind of update, and literally by noon, the next day, everything was canceled.”
Wade, 196-109 in 11 seasons at UH, was obviously disappointed.
“One of the things we always talk about is focusing on the things that you can control,” Wade said. “This clearly put that mantra to the test. I think the guys handled that well. They realized that in life there’s things that happen outside of your control and that’s why you focus on the things that are in your control.
“While there was disappointment — we thought we had a good team, and coming off an exciting win, there was a lot of excitement in the community around the program and support for the team — but given what’s going on around us and throughout the world, we just stay focused on what we can do to be better when this thing’s over.”
The Hawai’i roster was loaded last spring and that included four seniors.
So Wade was pragmatic.
“Since there was nothing that they could do about it, and it was completely out of our control, a world-wide crisis, we just moved on. Let’s stay focused, hopefully we get a chance to put the band back together next year.
“It’s an opportunity to continue to work and do what we’ve been doing, to become better and to come out on the other side of it. Better than we were before.”
And indeed, the band is back together.
The Rainbow Warriors are missing only senior James Anastassiades, who will change roles from outside hitter to team manager as he focuses on his grad studies in 2021. But those other three seniors? Some of the best in the college game in middle Patrick Gasman, outside Colton Cowell, and right side Rado Parapunov.
Gasman, a 6-foot-10 product of Clovis, California, led with 54 blocks, seven solo, and had 83 kills (1.84/set).
Wade said that the 6-1 Cowell, who is from Makawao, Maui, is more fit than ever.
“He just continued to work, and by the end of last year, he realized he probably spent too much time in the weight room. He got a little too heavy,” Wade said.
“It’s not that he stopped working out, but he’s in the best shape of his life, and he’s a guy that’s touching around 11-7, 11-8, and he’s 6-1.”
Cowell last season had 132 kills (3.77/set), hit .362, and had 53 digs, 132 kills, 16 assists, 14 aces, and 18 blocks, one solo.
“His overall game is at the highest level that we’ve ever seen,” Wade said. “He’s consistently hitting serves mid-to-high 60s (mph), can touch 70, and his efficiency has gotten a lot better. His hand-on-ball contact is really efficient.
“His passing has always been elite, and I think that’s even gotten better. He’s more terminal. He’s always been a thinker, and he’s just elevating and swinging with the intent to score virtually every time now, and it’s fun to watch.”
Parapunov, the 6-9 left-hander from Bulgaria, led Hawai’i with 201 kills (4.47/set) as he hit .377. He had five assists, 16 aces, and 38 blocks, three solo.
“Rado is certainly one of the best opposites in the country along with Gabi (Garcia Fernandez of BYU). Last year we won when Rado played well, and they won when Gabi played well,” Wade said.
“He’s such a tremendous guy to have on your side. He’s 6-9, he’s lefty. This year he realizes that he has to step up to the leadership role, we rely on him so much statistically.”
The libero is 6-1 Gage Worsley, a junior from Moraga, California, led with 105 digs (2.05/set) and also had 35 assists. He had a .961 passing percentage.
“Gage is, if not the best libero in the country, certainly in the conversation. He’s an elite level performer,” Wade said.
Wade has been pleasantly surprised by UH’s depth in the middle. He said Max Rosenfeld and Alaka’i Todd made the most of the offseason.
Rosenfeld is a 6-7 sophomore from New Lenox, Illinois, who played in 17 sets last season and had 19 kills and hit .667. He had 21 blocks, two solo.
“The most improved guy in our gym in the fall has been Max Rosenfeld,” Wade said. “He was kind of a third middle for us last year, but he was on the floor at the end when we beat Lewis at Lewis and we beat BYU here.
“He’s worked really hard. He’ll be a fourth-year sophomore, which is kind of wild, but he’s worked really hard on his body and his game, and he can play at a really high level. He’s jumping well and I think he’s going to fill a nice role for us. He gives us more depth at the middle position.
Todd, a 6-9 product of Kailua, O’ahu, will actually be a third-year sophomore who redshirted his first year and played sparingly in 2019. Last year he played in 17 sets and has touched 11-9.
“It’s a veteran group for the most part,” Wade said. “The returning guys, we have a whole group that are third-year freshmen, then there are second-year freshmen, and fourth-year sophomores, so they hit the ground running.
“We have a pretty solid of guys that have been around. Colton and Rado, Pat, Gage, those guys have all been leaders on and off the court.
“They’ve all been recognized for their performance but also in our culture and practice gym, these guys didn’t miss a beat. Pat and Colton have been here for six years, this will be Rado’s fifth year, Gage’s fourth year, so they’ve been around a long time and they know what the lifestyle’s like and what we’ve got to do on a daily basis.
“They just kept going. They kept working, doing the stuff that got them to this level. When we’re given the opportunity, I think we’ll be ready to play.”
Hawai’i is currently on two-week break for finals and the holidays, but the team practiced for about six weeks this fall. The Rainbow Warriors return to campus for COVID testing on December 26, with practice set to resume on the 28th.
Fortunately for UH, COVID hasn’t been a factor, with the entire team testing negative throughout the fall, Wade said.
“We had a couple of players who had it before they came. A couple of kids from the mainland picked it up over the summer, and they didn’t know they had it until they had the negative test when they got here, but that was back in July and August,” Wade said.
“They were asymptomatic the entire time. We haven’t had any since, knock on wood. Our football team has had eight games, over 4,200 tests issued, and only one positive test the whole time. There are advantages to living on the most isolated place on Earth. It’s not like it’s not here at all, but it’s not here like it is in other communities.”
Scheduling is always a challenge, but even more so in a COVID year. Last year the Warriors played only non-conference opponents, while this year they might play only Big West teams, Wade said.
“It looks more and more like those will be the only matches that we’ll play, because of the cross-conference testing and the whole COVID thing,” Wade said.
“We’ve been talking actively about playing each series three times each, and it’s looking more and more that it will be something like that when we start playing in March. Our first league match could be against Northridge, which ironically is one year to the day the day that we got on the plane to got to Northridge to play them last year.”
The Big West is shaping up to be the most challenging conference in NCAA men’s volleyball. The final AVCA men’s poll from March 9, 2020 shows No. 2 Hawai’i, No. 3 UC Santa Barbara, No. 4 Long Beach State, and UC Irvine and UC San Diego tied for No. 6.
“We’ve been really competitive since the Big West started in 2018, everybody’s really good. Last year Santa Barbara was having a great year, both Irvine and San Diego were highly ranked, too. I don’t think that there’s one team that you’ll be able to overlook at all,” Wade said.
“Everybody’s going to be good again, and everybody’s got everybody back, and some teams have added a few pieces. It’ll be a dogfight again.”
The Big West last week canceled the women’s volleyball season, the one that was postponed from the fall and hoping to be conducted in the spring. There has yet to be a formal announcement from the league about the men, but Wade believes that the Big West tournament — which will decide the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — will be at the Stan Sheriff Center.
“ … I know that all the contracts have been signed,” Wade said, “the Hawaii Tourism authority has stepped up and made a league deal with the Big West where we’ll host the Big West on a multi-year basis, which is exciting.”
Exciting because Hawai’i draws more fans than any other in men’s college volleyball.
“We would have averaged over 7,000 people a night last year. It’s just a great environment to play volleyball in front of over 10,000 people, and they’re really into it. it’s really high level. “