It has become a running joke for the UH-Hilo volleyball team that comfort comes when matches go five sets because it’s such a frequent occurrence.
Coach Chris Leonard even jokes, “We’re good at digging ourselves out of holes, but stop digging yourself into one.”
So it was that the Vulcans found a way to defeat Concordia, another tough PacWest foe, 20-25 26-24, 25-16, 16-25, 15-7, on Saturday night at their COVID-19 restriction fan-free gym.
“Clearly, we’re a very gritty team,” Leonard said. “We know we can chase down any team when we’re behind. It’s become a running joke that’s five is our thing. We have a lot of experience in the fifth set, and we’re comfortable in the fifth set.”
No surprise, UHH graduate student Bria Beale led the way with 22 kills and a career-high 29 digs, once again, outperforming the other team’s top player and showing that she’s clearly the best player in the PacWest.
As a left-side blocker, the 5-foot-11 Beale also helped neutralize 6-4 Eagle opposite Patience O’Neal (no relation to Shaq), who had 14 kills on a team-high 51 swings but hit only .176.
The Eagles (9-5, 4-3 PacWest) had more blocks, 8-6, more digs, 104-99, and hit .207, slightly lower than the Vuls, who had a .210 attack percentage.
The Vulcans (10-2, 7-1), who won their sixth straight, also played without 6-1 senior opposite Alex Parisian, who injured her knee in a five-set win over Biola on Wednesday and was on crutches.
“I don’t know her time frame, and that’s a huge hole for us,” Leonard said. “She provides for us good offense and defense. She’s also a senior leader. There are lot of things she provides that aren’t reflected in the boxscore. Her presence is definitely missed. But I’m really proud of our players who’ve stepped up.
“We’ve got depth, and everybody is ready when their number is called. When your number is called, you have to be ready to go.”
Beale outperformed Biola’s Madison Beebe, the Eagles’ top threat. Beale has outplayed every team’s best player, proving the conference coaches likely got it wrong when they voted Fresno Pacific’s Corrinne Acosta the preseason player of the year.
Beale had help. Middle blocker Ashton Jessee had 12 kills, hit .321 and added 2.5 blocks. Samara Cruz added 13 kills and 14 digs. Kamilla Marinas, Parisian’s replacement, had 11 kills, hit. 308, had one block and three digs.
Marinas, a 5-11 sophomore, who can play middle and opposite, came up huge in Game 5 with four kills, the last for a 6-5 lead during UHH’s 11-0 run.
“She had a great match. She’s played middle for us for a long time,” Leonard said. “She’s a great blocker. She was matched up against O’Neal, a big 6-4 opposite. She’s a smart blocker, sees the attack well, and always gets her hands in the right place. And that’s her strength, but she’s also very capable offensively from the right side.
“She finished 11 of 26, hit .308 on the right side, and I’ll take that any night of the week. It was a great performance and even better it’s a position where she’s had very little experience.”
With libero Tani Hoke, who had 19 digs, behind the line, Concordia’s serve-receive passing completely fell apart in Game 5. Twice, the Vulcans slammed down balls on an overpass. Cruz bounced a ball off an Eagle on a line shot to cap the run for a 13-5 lead.
During the run, the Eagles called two timeouts and even had a player huddle, where they shouted, “Let’s go.” None of it helped. It would have been better, if they shouted, “Pass better,” or if they watched a Serve-Receive Passing Lesson 101 video.
For the second straight match, UHH freshman defender Madelyn Blanford had double-digits digs. She had 12 against Concordia and 10 against Biola.
“We have a double-switch, where Kamilla is playing in the front row, and Maddie is playing in the back row,” Leonard said. “Maddie is a spark plug. She’s got a lot of energy, really tough server. She puts some heat on her serves and does it with confidence. She hits the spots we ask her to hit, and she’s super quick on defense. She’s getting better every time she’s out there.”
She played club ball for Hoopa coach Ainsley Keawekane. Her teammate, setter and fellow 2021 Kealakehe graduate, Aulike Kaiawe, also developed in club ball. Kaiawe, who’s on the injured list, played for Pilipaa, coached by Leonard.
“I’m excited about the players we’ve got in the program who’ll contribute for yeas to come,” he said.
Eventually, they’ll be vital parts for the Vulcans when the Core Three of Beale, Parisian, and Jessee are gone after this season.
One reason the Vulcans are so good in five-set marathons is because they’ve been through the grinder. During the spring, they had a 5-1 record in five-setters. In 2019, UHH was 6-3 in five-setters.
It’s already an unpredictable PacWest season. Concordia swept two-time conference champion Azusa Pacific on the road, without O’Neal, but lost in four sets to Biola.
UHH’s lone conference loss was to Hawaii Pacific in five sets. The Sharks (2-14, 1-7) are in the cellar, tied with Fresno Pacific.
Did the Eagles get lucky or are the preseason No. 1 Cougars not as good as everyone thinks? (UHH plays APU on Oct. 29 on the road then Biola the next night.)
“It’s a very interesting league this year,” Leonard said. “Hard to say, obviously we haven’t seen Azusa yet. We’ll find out. I suspect with a lot of teams you’re trying to find consistency.
“When we’re on, we can be really, really good. When we’re off, we can find ourselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Everybody is kind of in that boat right now.”
The Vulcans take on two of the league’s doormats with Dominican on Wednesday and Holy Names on Saturday at home.