By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The University of Hawaii Warrior volleyball team will look to soar high and pound its frustrations out following a 7-20 record last season in an intrasquad scrimmage for a hometown good cause.
There will be no admission charge for the scrimmage at 7 p.m. Saturday at Waiakea High Gym, but donations can be made to the American Heart Association on behalf of former swimmer and Waiakea graduate Peter Chi, who died last month of apparent cardiac arrest.
Chi was 19. He was a 2010 Waiakea graduate and UH walk-on, who earned a scholarship and a Conference USA team championship.
UH players and coaches will also be available for autographs following the match. The Warriors open their season Jan. 4, hosting BYU in a pair of matches.
Daniel Aina, a 2012 Kamehameha graduate, was in the mix for the libero starting job, but will be a manager and take a two-year Mormon mission next semester, said UH coach Charlie Wade, who enters his fourth season.
Last season, the Warriors stubbed their toe early, stumbling to a 1-15 start, including a victory-searching mission that lasted until the ninth match.
UH lost its biggest weapon in outside hitter Steven Hunt, who pounded 419 kills or 4.15 per set in his senior year. Stepping in the first-rotation outside hitting spot is sophomore JP Marks, who finished second with 216 kills or 2.30 per set.
Marks, a German junior national team member, is one of four foreign players on the roster, standing 6 feet 4 or taller. The 6-6 Marks had a .173 hitting percentage last season. Much like baseball, anything below the Mendoza (.200) line is considered to be in the neighborhood of mediocre.
Still, Wade is holding a tall glass of optimism filled to the brim, knowing the shifting history of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference, the toughest in the land of men’s volleyball. MPSF bullies have won seven of the last nine NCAA national championships.
On the flip side of the coin, there’s been a different MPSF champion the last nine seasons. Also, Stanford was in the conference cellar in 2009. The following season, the Cardinal won the national title.
That 2010 Stanford team was powered by Brad Lawson and brothers Kawika and Erik Shoji, all local products. Lawson and Kawika Shoji, both out of Iolani, were Co-Most Outstanding Players at the NCAA Tournament. Erik Shoji, out of Punahou, also made the All-Tournament team.
Getting blue-chip local kids, like Rainbow Wahine coach Dave Shoji’s two sons, to stay home remains a top priority for Wade, an assistant under Shoji for 11 years.
“We have to get out in the community and get to know those guys more,” Wade said. “We’re going to keep recruiting locally first and keep banging that drum to get more guys to stay home.”
But recruiting in men’s volleyball is far tougher because there are only 4.5 scholarships available and little margin for mistakes. On the women’s side, there are 12 full scholarships.
“Recruiting in terms of club contacts is all kind of the same. It’s the people you know,” Wade said. “Since we’re here in the middle of the Pacific ocean, I’ve traveled more internationally and have met junior national team coaches all over the world and my contacts continue to grow.
“In women’s volleyball, if you make a mistake and it usually happens. Two or three players on scholarship never play through their whole career. But in men, you can’t make a mistake. Recruiting is an inexact science. When you get a kid, he’s 17, 18 or 19 years old, where he ends up in terms of development three or four years later is a big guess.”
That said, Wade cracked an absolutely huge, program-changing home run when he snagged two-time All-American Jonas Umlauft of Germany. In his inaugural season in 2010, Wade led UH to its first trip to the MPSF semifinals for the first time since 2003.
In 2011, the Warriors got there again, sparked by the hitting talents of Umlauft, who led the nation in kills for the second straight year and hit an impressive .344. He was not only remarkable, but also reliable, producing double-figure kill totals in all his starts.
No surprise, when Umlauft decided to stay in Germany, UH took a long, hard tumble to last place in the 12-team conference standings. He’s 6 feet 9 and left huge shoes to fill. He’s not on the 2013 roster.
However, Wade’s optimism is not dimmed in the least, even with the loss of Hunt, who hit .224, mirroring UH’s hitting struggles. The team had a .223 hitting percentage, far off 2011’s hitting clip of .330.
“I think we’ll be better because we have more depth and balance,” he said. “Hilo is a great volleyball team and the fans will get to see everybody. There are some guys we’re excited about and will help us out a lot. Davis Holt (who has family on the Big Island) is a redshirt sophomore middle blocker. He broke his thumb last week, but hopefully the doctors will let him play. Max Wechsung is 6-6 and a junior college transfer (from Long Beach City College). He’s good and Johann Timmer is a returning hitter for us.
“I thought we had talent better than a 12th-place team last year. We want to get back to where were in the previous two seasons, a top four spot in the league and a chance to host a playoff game.”
The road to an NCAA national championship is short and brutal. There are only three conferences. The MPSF runner-up usually draws the at-large bid. But there’s a dozen teams clawing over each other for two spots.
Talent can drive a team only so far, especially if a lack of fundamentals often leads to breakdowns and flat tires. Wade is hoping to fix a few basics, starting with the intrasquad scrimmage, a first in Hilo in over 15 years.
“We’ve been working a lot on our blocking. That’s one area we need to get better at, and scoring when we’re out-of-system in rallies,” he said. “We weren’t good at that last year. I think we’re better. Our goal this year is to show up, work hard and get better every day.”