It was a bittersweet first home match for the UH-Hilo volleyball team, which beat a tough foe in Biola but lost one of its best players to injury in senior opposite Alex Parisian, who injured her knee in the second set and didn’t return.
The Vulcans rode a roller coaster and edged the Eagles 25-17, 17-25, 29-27, 22-25, 15-10 in a PacWest showdown Wednesday in a rather empty UHH gym.
Bria Beale had 17 kills and 15 digs, and Samara Cruz had 16 kills and 13 digs for the Vulcans (9-2, 6-1 PacWest), who were coming of a 4-0 road trip.
Tani Hoke had a whopping 30 digs and Sydney Gott added 14 kills and 5.5 blocks for UHH, which hit .209 and outblocked Biola 13-8.
Dani Bryant had 17 kills and hit an incredible .519, and Madison Beebe had 16 kills and 21 digs for the Eagles, who hit .175 and had a tad more digs, 87-85.
The Eagles (7-6, 3-2), who lost to two-time conference champion Azusa Pacific in five sets Friday, were picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll behind the Cougars, Vulcans, and Chaminade.
In the roller-coaster fifth set, Beale and Cruz took turns plucking the feathers off the Eagles. First up: Beale, the 5-foot-11 graduate student and shot-making maestro. Beale had six kills in the set, the last for match point, a muscle shot that bounced into the stands.
She hit a line shot, then a power shot for a 2-2 tie, smoked a cross-court shot off an Eagle for a 5-4 lead. Then she tag-teamed Cruz, the 5-8 freshman, who plays bigger than her size and has more than an abundance of big-game swinging confidence to match.
Cruz hammered down a shot against a double team for a 6-6 tie, a cross-court shot, and a line shot for an 8-6 advantage. She finished her shot-making exhibition with another line shot off an Eagle for an 11-8 lead.
“It was a gritty performance,” UHH coach Chris Leonard said. “We’re not sure about Alex. We’re not sure how long she’ll be out. Bria took great swings tonight. Bria has the ability to find another gear.
“Samara is a very crafty hitter. In the fifth set, we told her, ‘Believe in yourself because we believe in you.’ She plays well when she’s confident.”
Cruz along with 6-3 middle blocker sophomore transfer Gott are two of the best touch hitters for the Vuls. Both can spot an opening, show fastball but hit a changeup.
The first set was close for a while, at 11-9, before the Vuls went on a 7-0 run with Beale at the service line, where she dropped an ace.
The Eagles had a service error on set point, one of 11 unforced errors. The Vulcans had just nine giveaway points.
In the second set, Parisian, UHH’s Cal Ripken Jr. and someone who’s never missed a game during her career, went down with a leg injury when the Eagles blocked a ball for a 14-13 lead. Biola was on a 7-0 run at the time for a 19-13 lead. (Parisian didn’t return.)
Besides being UHH’s second-best threat (2.75 kills per set average) behind Beale (3.92), Parisian is a valuable and versatile defender. The 6-foot-1 senior is second in blocks and fourth in digs on the team.
The Eagles played, to borrow a football term, smash-mouth ball and rammed it down UHH’s throat. Biola improved its passing and just hammered balls off blocks.
In the pivotal third set, the Vulcans pulled their trump card, the one advantage they have over every team in the conference: Beale, an All-West Region pick, one step down from All-American status, in 2019. The brilliance of Beale is she can adjust on the fly.
Biola was lining up its defense perfectly to pick up her thunder shots. So the 5-11 two-time All-PacWest pick didn’t try to hit around the Eagles rather she took target practice and cranked power shots off them with a couple of balls flying into the stands.
Beale had seven kills in the set, the last for a 28-27 UHH lead. Then Ashton Jessee, who’s a tough-serving 6-3 middle blocker, dropped an ace for game point.
When Beale faces another team’s top threat, she clearly outperforms them.
Beale has already outplayed Fresno Pacific’s Corinne Acosta, the preseason player of the year, when UHH swept the Sunbirds last Friday on the road. Beale had 14 kills on a .278 hitting percentage and had 20 digs. Acosta had 15 kills, hit .156 and got 13 digs.
Biola sophomore 5-foot-11 outside hitter Beebe entered with an average of 3.45 kills per set on a .233 hitting percentage. She doesn’t hit the ball as hard as Beale or have that type of athleticism. But Beebe hits smart, tool shots off high hands and somehow finds holes.
In the fourth game, the Eagles jumped out to a 20-16 lead, and the Vuls got within 23-21. But Beebe knocked down two kills from there, the last for game point to force a final fifth set.
The Vulcans next play Concordia, picked to finish sixth in the PacWest, on Saturday.