In Hawaii, volleyball reigns supreme

Alex Griffiths is a California girl who, during a family vacation, fell in love with Hawaii.

It wasn't the beaches and the surf that set Griffiths' heart aflutter. It was University of Hawaii volleyball.

"Volleyball was on TV at a sit-down restaurant, not just the NFL or the NBA," Griffiths said. "That's when I realized volleyball was a popular sport there. They treat it like overseas, where it's a top sport. It was very inspiring to see."

Griffiths is a 5-foot-6 senior defensive specialist at Hawaii, where volleyball isn't the niche sport it is on campuses from Berkeley to Gainesville.

On Hawaii's Manoa campus, just outside Honolulu, it's as mainstream as football or basketball, with proof in the bottom line: Hawaii fields the nation's only revenue-producing volleyball program.

Four times in their history, the Rainbow Wahine (wahine means "women") have found gold at season's end, winning national titles in 1979, '82, '83 and '87.

This year, Hawaii, seeded No. 10, got the rare opportunity to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament matches (NCAA bracket-makers have a history of sending the team on the road early) and has made the most of it, beating the University of Northern Colorado 3-0, then Colorado State 3-1.

Hawaii next hosts seventh-seeded Southern California in Friday's regional semifinals, with the winner playing either Kansas State or Pepperdine for a berth in the Final Four, set for Dec. 15-17 in San Antonio.

Hawaii's volleyball identity was carved by coach Dave Shoji, in his 37th season of a career bordering on legendary. The two-time national coach of the year was inducted into the American Volleyball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last December. He is taking a Hawaii team to the NCAA tournament for the 30th time.

"I don't really want to comment on our chances to win," Shoji said. "I will say I think it's wide open. I don't think there's any one team that shows any kind of dominance. Everybody has been up and down. I think we have as good a chance as anybody."

Hawaii won its 16th straight conference title earlier this month with a straight-sets victory over New Mexico State.

A member of the Western Athletic Conference, Hawaii hasn't lost a conference game in three seasons, dating to Oct. 12, 2008.

Next season, the Rainbow Wahine are moving to the Big West Conference, triggered by Hawaii football's jump to the Mountain West. With all the other schools in the Big West being in California, the change should help make road trips and recruiting easier.

Senior outside hitter Kanani Danielson leads the team. Danielson, a three-time All-American and three-time WAC player of the year, is dominating at outside hitter despite being 5-foot-11, shorter than most elites at that position. She recorded 416 kills this season.

Another prominent senior outside hitter, two-time WAC first-teamer Chanteal Satele, was practically born into the sport. Her mother, LeeAnn, played for Shoji at the same position on two national title teams (1982, 1983).

"My mom said he's a lot nicer now," Satele said. "He's a really cool guy. It's fun to play volleyball for him. He makes practices fun and challenging."

When the Wahine play, they take an entire state along for the ride. Their games are not only televised, but a radio team broadcasts live play by play, traveling with the Wahine on the road.

Players, even reserves such as Griffiths -- a walk-on whose childhood dream was to play for Hawaii -- get recognized at Walmart, the mall and restaurants. Waiters ask to pose for photos. Kids want autographs.

"Volleyball's a really big deal here in Hawaii," Satele said. "I don't think there's any other state that roots for one team."

Hawaii joined the WAC in 1996. Its road games involve epic travel, as the team racks up 40,000 miles a season. The Wahine make about five trips to the continental U.S. each season, playing schools in California, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Louisiana and Nevada.

This season, their shortest trip was 5,000 miles. Luckily, it's not hard for Hawaii to convince teams to visit -- from Sept. 26 to Oct. 10, it hosted three tournaments, playing 11 straight home matches to open the season.

For visiting schools, playing Hawaii has more benefits than being a trip to an exotic locale and a great recruiting tool. Hawaii's Stan Sheriff Center is frequently a packed house -- the school has led the nation in attendance since moving to the center in 1994. This season, the team averaged 6,169 spectators per game through early November, with Nebraska a distant second at 4,632.

The atmosphere is as warm inside as out. Volleyball-savvy Hawaii fans appreciate good play and don't disparage the home team even when it doesn't play well.

Then there are The Aunties, four 60- and 70-something women who have for years occupied seats behind the court's end line. They will research a visiting team's school colors, then make leis and drape them over the shoulders of the team's seniors and coaches before the match begins.

"They're like my own grandmas," Griffiths said.

They also are the collective conscience of the Sheriff Center. Utah State coach Grayson DuBose remembers upbraiding a referee for a bad call.

"I yelled something like, 'That's a bunch of crap!'" DuBose said. "One of the ladies said, 'Now, Coach, you better watch it. I'm going to call your mom.'

"I felt a little sheepish and kind of dumb."

It's such a feel-good volleyball atmosphere that often, Shoji said, opposing teams play better at the Sheriff Center. Of course, they still don't win much. Hawaii is 19-1 at home this season.

"The crowds are not hostile. It's a great place to play," Shoji said. "I don't think there's a huge home-court advantage. [The fans are] nice. They appreciate volleyball. They applaud the other team when there's a good play on the other side of the net."

So when the Wahine (31-1) host USC (27-4), they won't have a home-court advantage as much as a home-bed one. Hawaii's players won't be the ones jet-lagged or adjusting to a different time zone.

The Shoji-led Wahine are iconic enough that the reincarnated "Hawaii Five-O" TV show worked them into an episode this season, drawing a sellout crowd of 10,000 spectators for crowd shots following an actual match against Pepperdine.

The plot involved solving the murder of the team's coach. But not Shoji. They replaced him with some young guy, Griffiths said.

"Coach Dave, you look really good on TV," players told him.

Hawaii volleyball has a broad reach, the sport seemingly enmeshed with the culture. Even Hawaiians who have left the islands appear, almost magically, at matches in surprising places such as western Louisiana; Moscow, Idaho; and Logan, Utah. They don't need to wear team colors, just flowery shirts.

"We get those kinds of fans, you don't know who they are but they know you," said Shoji, who has a career mark of 1,074-180-1. "When I travel around the country, randomly there's people who always know who I am and want a picture or something. I guess the popularity or the notoriety of Wahine volleyball is worldwide, pretty much."

Now, the NCAA regional begins on the island and the Rainbow Wahine can stay put, hopefully for two more matches. Aunties, keep braiding your leis.

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