Volleyball: Vulcans primed to face Western Washington again at NCAA West Regional

  • RICK OGATA photo UH-Hilo celebrates a win Nov. 23, one that helped boost the Vulcans to NCAA West Regionals, where they hope for more celebrations Thursday.

Perhaps no current UH-Hilo volleyball player’s journey better illustrates what the program went through from 2012-18 better than Kaila Lizama.

The senior libero is on her third coach, and she almost walked away from the game twice, but she entered her final season of college focused on beating Chaminade. When that finally happened, something in her mind clicked, just as it had on the court for the Vulcans, who won 16 of their final 18 games.

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“I never did think we’d be able to get to the postseason in my whole four years here,” Lizama said Wednesday in a phone interview from San Bernardino, Calif. “They talked about how Hilo didn’t have the greatest record in volleyball. Being able to beat Chaminade was actually a big turning point for me.

“I was like this team can actually get somewhere. We have all right parts and now we just have to get out and do it.”

UHH did, which was why the Vulcans’ expanded travel party went through a brisk, aggressive and talkative practice at Coussoulis Arena, where they’ll return Thursday for their first postseason game in eight years. In a rematch of a five-set loss earlier in the season, the seventh-seeded Vuls (23-7) face second-seeded Western Washington (28-2) at 12:30 p.m. Hawaii time in the first round of the eight-team NCAA West Regionals.

“We’re all happy to be here, it’s been a long time coming for this program,” interim coach Chris Leonard said, “but I don’t think any of us are just content to be here.

“We came here with the mindset of winning some volleyball matches.”

Victories on three consecutive days are required to win the West and advance to nationals in Denver in the middle of the month. Top-seeded Cal State San Bernardino is ranked No. 1 in the country, while Western Washington is fourth.

Only one team, Alaska-Anchorage, has had the Vikings’ number this season, beating last season’s national runner-up twice. Besides those two losses, the Vikings haven’t been pushed to five sets since Sept. 14 against the Vuls in Pomona, Calif.

“We talked at the end of practice (Wednesday), we took them the distance and as we have throughout the season we’ve played with a chip on our shoulder. We beat really good teams and the response has been, ‘Well, maybe that team isn’t so good after all.’ We feel we haven’t been given the respect we necessarily deserve, and now we have to go and play and earn it.”

On Wednesday, Western Washington had four players represented on all-West Regional teams: senior middle blocker Kayleigh Harper, sophomore outside hitter Gabby Gunterman, redshirt freshman outside hitter Calley Heilborn and redshirt freshman setter Malia Aleaga

UHH had one: junior outside hitter Bria Beale, who became the first Vul to make the since Hillary Hurley in 2011 – which was the last time the Vuls played at this stage.

The Vulcans certainly weren’t three players short of beating Western Washington in the first match. More like three points. They won two of the first three sets and Game 4 was tied 19-19 before the Vikings ultimately survived 23-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-19, 15-10.

“I think we just to have to be more aggressive in our serves and really stick our serve-receive passes,” Lizama said. “Because when our passing is on our setter can set the middle and our outsides and our rightsiders. Because we have so much depth it’s hard to defend us when we’re on every time.

“We’re really excited to see them again and see how we’ve compared through the season.”

Junior outside hitter Amber Tai led UHH with 17 kills in the first meeting, her second-highest total of the season, while Harper smacked 24 for the Vikings. Playing her seventh collegiate match, 6-foot-3 freshman middle blocker Emily Wade had 11 kills for UHH, and she’s only gotten better since then, earning all-Pacific West Conference honors.

Leonard hopes Wade can be an X-factor against a “talented and balanced” Western Washington team that likes to be aggressive and attacking at the net.

“She’s really progressed over the course of the season and became one of the more dominant middles in our conference,” he said. “Her level of play has become higher at this point of the season, and I can say that as a team collectively we’ve improved, we’re playing a lot better now.”

Of course, the same can be said of Western Washington.

“I’m sure they’ve done their homework on us,” Leonard said.

In a fun footnote to UHH’s last game Nov. 23 against Academy of Art, Lizama celebrated just her fourth kill of the season as the Vuls improved to 6-3 in five-set matches.

When pressed, Lizama joked that she hoped kill No. 5 came Thursday, but that’s not her job.

“My job is to keep every ball alive,” she said.

And so much more, especially in the NCAA tournament, where she expects nerves to inevitably creep in for UHH before the match.

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“I like to keep everyone positive and not tense,” she said. “I love communicating with everyone on the court and I love making eye contact. If someone needs it, I look them in the eye and say, “Let’s do this.’ ‘Let’s go.’ ‘We got this.’ ‘It’s fine.’”

“I’ve never felt so much support from the community, from the fans to the teachers, to the other athletes,” she said. “It’s a really big thing and I’m so glad to have that for our senior season.”

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