By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
If the University of Hawaii at Hilo women’s volleyball team is going to be competitive in the Pacific West Conference this season, the young Vulcans need to play with more consistency and fire.
“We’re hoping to get better every match throughout the season,” UHH coach Tino Reyes said. “That’s our mantra. But what this team needs most is playing experience and getting the necessary reps to become more skilled. We just have to keep improving on our consistency, get some success, and see our girls continue to gain confidence in what we’re trying to do.”
The Vulcans (0-6) host Hawaii Pacific University (6-2) at 10 a.m. Saturday in their PacWest opener at the UHH Gym. The Vuls are coming off a frustrating two-match loss to visiting Southern Arkansas University and that concerned the soft-spoken Reyes heading into practice earlier this week.
“They were tough losses and overall as a team, we didn’t play very well,” he said. “But we had a good practice Monday and the girls showed a lot of enthusiasm. It’s important from a mental standpoint to be ready and excited to play. Now, we’ve just got to get them the reps and continue working hard to get better.”
HPU provides a difficult challenge for the Vulcans, a team with only three seniors on their 12-player roster.
“I haven’t seen HPU play this year,” Reyes said. “But I know they probably have a nice team and they’re picked to finish third or fourth in the conference. And I know at this time of the year, everyone is scouting and will know a team’s strengths and weaknesses.
“But we’re going to try to take care of the things we need to do first and not worry so much about our opponents. So far I’m pleased with our serving, we’re attacking the ball more and that helps our defense. We’re very small on the block. That means we’ve got to be better in the back row.”
Reyes also praised the play of sophomore middle blocker Olivia Lane, who had 12 kills with one error in 25 attempts in the four-set loss to Southern Arkansas on Saturday. The 5-foot-11 middle from Rocklin, Calif., hit .440 against the Muleriders (4-2).
“Olivia had a great game,” Reyes said. “We need her to play like that plus have Bria (Morgan) and Patty (Snel) to play well this season. If we can do that against HPU, we might have a chance.”
Lane leads the Vuls with 18 blocks this season.
Morgan, a 5-11 freshman outside hitter from Soquel, Calif., had 13 kills against Southern Arkansas on Saturday and leads UHH in kills this season. But in order for her to play effectively in the highly competitive PacWest, Reyes wants her read her options before swinging for the fences.
“I like what Bria is doing for us, she’s doing a nice job,” the UHH coach said. “But in the PacWest, the teams are going to stack their blockers on her and she’ll have to make better decisions when she hits. You can’t always hit it hard, you have to see what’s available and then hit the appropriate shot — whether it’s a dink, an angle shot or whatever. If you can just get it over, that puts pressure on your opponent’s defense.”
Morgan has a team-high 82 kills in 311 attempts, a .061 hitting percentage. Lane and Snel each have 43 kills while UHH is hitting .077 per match while their taller opponents are ripping the volleyball at a .246 clip.
Defense is what Reyes is counting on to keep his Vulcans in a match. The Vuls have to keep balls alive with their hustle and make clean passes to freshman setter Jolie Au. The quick 5-6 Au, out of Kaiser High School on Oahu, has been pushed into the starting lineup with experienced junior setter Nicole Conley sidelined with a concussion. Conley is a question mark for Saturday’s match while awaiting medical clearance to return to action.
Au has a team-high 111 assists this season.
“I’m not comfortable playing freshmen unless they’re the best player on the floor,” Reyes said. “We were not counting on Jolie playing this much, but she’s done some good things for us, especially in the back row, and her and Olivia are starting to feel comfortable with each other.”
Snel, a 5-8 outside hitter with excellent defensive skills, has been steady for the Vulcans in their six preseason matches. She leads UHH with 72 digs. But Reyes feels it’s time for Snel and the more experienced Vulcans to step up with the PacWest at hand.
“It always helps when the team leaders step up and show that they care for the other players and what needs to be done,” the UHH coach said. “But for this young team, we just need more reps to improve on our skill sets and do it in the faster-paced conference games.”
HPU, under coach Daryl Kapis, is led by hitters Haley Doerfler (66 kills/120 swings/.433), Samantha Rummans (67/174/.241) and Amanda Moriarty (58/196/.138 with a team-high 12 aces). Setter Pihanakealoha Kea leads the Sea Warriors with 269 assists while junior defensive specialist Chelsey Buyuan, a former Waiakea High standout, tops the team with 126 digs.
As a team, HPU is hitting .186 per match while its opponents hit .116.