Serving woes dash Hawai’i’s Big West dreams in semifinal loss to UC Irvine

Serving woes dash Hawai’i’s Big West dreams in semifinal loss to UC Irvine

Hawai’i men’s volleyball’s run through the 2024 OUTRIGGER Big West Championship tournament presented by the Hawaiian Islands came to an end Friday night as the ‘Bows fell in the semifinals in three sets to #2 seed UC Irvine. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Serving woes dash Hawai’i’s Big West dreams in semifinal loss to UC Irvine

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED APRIL 19, 2024

HONOLULU – There will be a new champion in the Big West. 

The 3rd-seeded Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors (23-7) saw hopes of a third consecutive conference tournament title go up in flames Friday night, falling victim to 19 service errors in an uber-competitive three-set semifinal loss to the 2nd-seeded UC Irvine Anteaters, 26-24, 36-34, 25-15, in the 2024 OUTRIGGER Big West Men’s Volleyball Championship tournament.  

The victory served as a dose of payback for the Anteaters (19-9), who hosted the 2023 Big West Championship and eventually fell to the then-top seeded Rainbow Warriors in four sets in the title match. 

It looked like it would be all Hawai’i early as the ‘Bows raced out of the gates to a 7-1 lead behind a sizzling run at the service line by redshirt sophomore middle blocker Kurt Nusterer that included a pair of aces, but UC Irvine responded with six of the next seven points to get right back into the set while prompting a UH timeout. 

The break in the action helped Hawai’i get back to scoring, trading points to maintain a one-point lead in the opening frame before a 3-1 scoring run gave UH a three-point advantage at the set’s midway point, 15-12. 

After UCI’s Hilir Henno tied the match at 17, Hawai’i went back in front by two with the help of a service error from the Anteaters and a loud block from Nusterer at the net. Again, UC Irvine fought back to tie the set’s opening frame with the next two points before UH gained the advantage back with a Keoni Thiim high-flying attack to make it 22-21. 

UC Irvine tallied three of the next four points to push the ‘Bows to the brink in the 1st set before being sent into extra points by another Thiim attack that found a piece of court. The Anteaters wasted little time finishing out the frame after Connor Campbell blocked an attack from Nusterer to give a 25-24 advantage to UCI and a triple-block at the net for the 2nd-seeded ‘Eaters delivered the night’s first stanza in the pocket of Irvine.

The night’s 2nd set opened in a bit of a flipped script from the premiere frame as the Anteaters jumped out to a 5-2 lead before Hawai’i stabilized to pull back within a point. Kurt Nusterer dunked a free ball off a mishandled Kai Taylor serve to continue the Rainbow Warriors’ momentum, tying the set at 13 before combining with Chaz Galloway for a block at the net that gave Hawai’i its first lead of the encore stanza, 14-13, and force a timeout from UCI.  

Following the timeout, an ace from All-Freshman team selection Louis Sakanoko gave the ‘Bows a multi-point cushion before he handed the point right back on a service error. Old friend Brett Sheward dropped in an ace of his own to tie it at 17-all right afterwards for the ‘Eaters, trying to deliver UCI to a two-set advantage. 

Back-to-back errors from UCI gave a two-point lead back to Hawai’i and Nusterer delivered the ’Bows to the doorstep of knotting the match at a set apiece with his fifth kill of the evening, but the Anteaters still would not relent as they rattled off four straight points to set up a set point of their own, 25-24. 

Still, neither side flinched an inch as Thiim smashed a kill off a UCI block to send the second set to extra points. The two sides combined for an additional 20 points as Hawai’i failed to take advantage of nine set point opportunities, finally seeing the frame end on Henno’s 20th kill of the night that ate up a pair of Rainbow Warriors. The kill delivered a 2-0 set lead for the Anteaters in a marathon that ended with a Big West Championships-record 70 total combined points in a 36-34 victory for UCI. 

The never-ending frame proved tiresome to Hawai’i’s morale as the ‘Bows saw a pair of sets go to the opponent after missed opportunities, creating an uneasy feeling to the 6,251 fans cheering on their Rainbow Warriors. 

Hawai’i split the opening 14 points of the 3rd set with UC Irvine to a 7-7 draw before Rainbow Warrior errors compounded with Henno hysteria at the net helped UCI pull away from UH with a comfortable four-point advantage at the media timeout. 

The efficiency from UCI continued after the break as the Anteaters swiftly outscored the ‘Bows with a 10-4 run over the final 14 services, capped off by an ace from 2023 Big West Freshman of the Year Maxim Grigoriev to take the last set, 25-15, and snap a seven-match losing streak in Hawai’i against the Rainbow Warriors. 

Hawai’i head coach Charlie Wade made a strong case for UCI’s Henno to be the frontrunner for the 2024 AVCA National Player of the Year honor following the match after the Frenchman buried a match-best 24 kills across three sets, not committing a service error in 17 attempts from behind the line to buoy the Anteaters into the Big West Championships’ title match for the second straight season. 

“Watching Henno out there tonight, National Player of the Year candidate,” Wade gushed. “If [Henno] isn’t the leader [for AVCA National Player of the Year], I don’t know who is … I think you saw the National Player of the Year out there tonight.” 

It was an up-and-down night for Hawai’i’s Louis Sakanoko, who led the ‘Bows with 12 kills on 29 swings but committed a match-high 12 errors throughout the night. The freshman from France added five digs and an ace while recording a team-best 13 points in three stanzas. The ‘Bows got a boost from the middles throughout the loss as Nusterer and Guilherme Voss combined for 17 kills on 28 combined swings, adding four blocks as well. 

In all, it was a competitive match for Hawai’i that saw the ‘Bows hitting above .400 through two sets and still trail by two frames despite that performance. 

The victory over the host Hawai’i is the first ever postseason win for UCI over their Big West rivals, falling in three previous meetings in the conference tournament. Hawai’i’s season likely will end with the loss, barring a surprise at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Both head coaches from the night’s 2nd semifinal match seemed to have differing opinions on the ‘Bows credentials for the national tournament. 

“The Big West has some really good volleyball teams. For me, that Hawai’i team is a tournament-worthy team for the NCAA [and] they’re doing some really nice stuff,” UC Irvine head coach David Kniffin said in his postgame availability. “For us to come out and win, obviously in this environment, is a big deal and we’re grateful for the opportunity to do that.” 

While Hawai’i has spent the majority of the season sitting inside the national ranking’s top-5, some critical losses against CSUN and UC San Diego hurt the Rainbow Warriors’ chances at receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, an event that only invites eight teams in total with six spots coming via the automatic bid for conference tournament champions and the remaining two being awarded as at-large bids. 

When asked about his team’s chances at making a return to the big dance, Hawai’i head coach Charlie Wade was far less hopeful in his expectations for the season to continue for the ‘Bows. 

“I’d say that’s about zero,” Wade responded about the chances Hawai’i sees a tournament selection on Sunday. 

Hawai’i dispatches UCSB in 4 sets, advances to Big West semifinals

Hawai’i dispatches UCSB in 4 sets, advances to Big West semifinals

3rd-seeded Hawai’i huddles after scoring a point against 6th-seed UC Santa Barbara in the 2024 OUTRIGGER Big West Men’s Volleyball Championships, presented by The Hawaiian Islands. UH defeated UCSB in 4 sets. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Hawai’i dispatches UCSB in 4 sets to advance to Big West semifinals

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED APRIL 18, 2024

HONOLULU – For the fourth consecutive season, Hawai’i men’s volleyball has played the role of “Grim Reaper” against UC Santa Barbara. 

Sure, this year started a bit differently, but the end result was still the same as Hawai’i (23-6) dispatched the sixth-seeded Gauchos (9-18) in four sets, 23-25, 25-20, 25-17, 25-23, to end the season for UCSB and keep the ‘Bows in the hunt for another berth to the NCAA Tournament.  

2024 marks the third consecutive season that ‘Bows stopped the ‘Chos in the Big West Championships and fourth straight in postseason matchups. 

(Note: Hawai’i defeated UCSB in the 2021 NCAA Tournament semifinals to also end the season for the Gauchos.) 

UH stumbled through a loaded Big West slate to a 5-5 record after the loss of senior floor captain and AVCA National Player of the Year candidate Spyros Chakas on March 10, late in the 5th set against national powerhouse UC Irvine in the OUTRIGGER Volleyball Invitational, the final non-conference match of the season for the ‘Bows. 2024 marked the first time since the Big West Championships in men’s volleyball began that the Rainbow Warriors finished the regular season without a top-2 seed heading into the conference tournament. 

Perhaps playing for their own at-large bid tournament chances, Kurt Nusterer got Hawai’i on the board after giving up first point on a net violation, hammering a kill to the floor to the delight of a loud crowd decked out in green for the Rainbow Warriors’ first appearance in the conference tournament’s quarterfinals. The Gauchos opened a multi-point lead with the next three points, keeping Hawai’i at a healthy distance for the following few rallies. 

A pair of service errors by the ‘Chos brought UH back within one before Nusterer registered an ace to knot the 1st set at 9-all. Following a net error caught via UCSB challenge, the Gauchos re-took the lead and carried that slim one-point advantage into the opening media timeout, 15-14. 

Following the stoppage, an extended rally finished off with an Alaka’i Todd kill tied the 1st set at 15 and Hawai’i finally inched in front for a moment, 18-17, after a Sam Collins attack sailed wide-right. The lead was short-lived for the ‘Bows as UCSB strung together a pair of points to jump back in front by one, but an acrobatic left-handed attack adjustment in air by Keoni Thiim evened the frame at 19. 

Again, two straight points from the Gauchos gave Hawai’i reason to sweat as head coach Charlie Wade called for his first timeout of the match with the ‘Bows trailing, 21-19. The break in the action didn’t help matters much as UCSB came to the cusp of victory with three of the next five points to force another timeout from Wade. 

After Hawai’i used the final timeout of the opening set, the ‘Bows staved off a couple of set points from the visitors before finally seeing Geste Bianchi finish the frame with his sixth kill to clinch a win in the night’s opening stanza for the Gauchos, 25-23. 

Despite 10 service errors from UCSB in the 1st set, the ‘Chos out-hit Hawai’i by a significant margin as the ‘Bows struggled to get into an offensive rhythm. 

The ‘Bows began the 2nd set far quicker than the opener, rattling off five of the first seven points to take the early lead. The ‘Chos responded with the help of some more sloppy play from Hawai’i, tying the frame at six after another Bianchi hammer. 

Hawai’i middle blocker Guilherme Voss reignited an uneasy crowd with a powerful kill to put UH back up one, but back-to-back errors from the Rainbow Warriors gave UCSB its first lead of the 2nd set at 8-7. Kailua’s own Alaka’i Todd pushed his hometown ‘Bows back ahead by one with an ace, 10-9, and UH would take five of the next seven points to head into the 2nd set media timeout leading by four. 

After UC Santa Barbara pulled back within one and Wade called for a timeout, Hawai’i calmed down once again to open up a three-point cushion, 20-17. UH serving specialist Kai Taylor deposited an ace cross-court to put Hawai’i on the cusp of tying the match at a set apiece before a service error from former UH setter and current Gaucho Jack Walmer delivered the victory to his old school as his try sailed wide to end the frame, 25-20. 

Much like its predecessor, the night’s third frame began in Hawai’i’s favor as the Rainbow Warriors raced out to an 8-3 lead to force a timeout from the Gauchos. The break did not stop any UH momentum as Hawai’i increased the advantage to eight after another Nusterer ace, 13-5. 

While the ‘Chos tried to climb back, Hawai’i held UCSB at arms’ length for the remainder of the frame. Chaz Galloway, who entered the match off the bench to provide a spark for Hawai’i in the 2nd set, continued his impact when he combined with Nusterer for a block at the net to claim the third stanza convincingly for the ‘Bows, 25-17. 

“Super proud of Chaz coming off of the bench and really giving us a lift,” Hawai’i head coach Charlie Wade said of his senior’s performance. “[He had] some really nice blocks as well – obviously [UCSB] is a team that back-sets a lot – and I thought he did a really good job of slowing them down.” 

UCSB, not quite ready to bow their heads, jumped out to an early 4-2 lead in the 4th set as Geste Bianchi continued a highly productive night for the lower-seeded Gauchos before Hawai’i tied the frame up at four each. The sides continued to battle, trading points all the way to the media timeout as the ‘Chos went up, 15-14. 

Tread Rosenthal delivered Hawai’i back ahead, 17-16, with a beautiful ace that capped off a 3-1 run from UH after the break in the action and a block from Voss and Galloway made the lead two for the ‘Bows, sending the crowd of nearly 6,000 fans into a frenzy. 

“First off, I want to thank all of the fans who came out tonight,” said Todd when asked about the raucous crowd. “They’re a huge part of how we get out of these funks and how we play well. Just having their support and hearing them, all the aunties and uncles you see in the crowd – It’s a big deal here.” 

That same crowd quickly let their displeasure with the officials known a few points later when UCSB crept back in front, 20-19, after Alaka’i Todd was called for a questionable overreach at the net, forcing a timeout from Wade’s Rainbow Warriors. 

The break in the action and the cheering voices of the Hawai’i men’s volleyball faithful proved to be the lift needed for UH as the ‘Bows fought back in front when freshman setter Tread Rosenthal unleashed his first dunk over the net on the second hit to surprise UCSB, putting Hawai’i in front, 23-22.  

Galloway twirled an ace down to set up an Aloha Ball chance for Hawai’i on the very next play and after one failed chance, Rosenthal uncorked a second surprise kill in the final three points to finish off UC Santa Barbara in the 4th set, 25-23. 

“Thrilled to get the win,” Hawai’i’s Wade said to open his postgame comments. “It wasn’t too pretty all the time out there but [there were] two teams that were really fighting hard.” 

UC Santa Barbara southpaw Geste Bianchi led all players in the match with 24 kills on 51 swings while former UH setter Jack Walmer recorded 33 assists against his former school across the four-set loss for the Gauchos. 

Hawai’i was paced by Alaka’i Todd’s 13 kills on 26 swings, adding three digs and a pair of blocks in the win. Keoni Thiim chipped in eight kills on 16 swings while spinning three aces for the ‘Bows, helping push Hawai’i to the program’s 19th consecutive win over UC Santa Barbara. 

The win pushes the Rainbow Warriors into Friday night’s 2nd semifinal match against #2 seed UC Irvine, who the ‘Bows have already seen three separate times this season. Hawai’i holds a 2-1 advantage through the three meetings, but the teams have split the 12 total frames played with each side winning six sets apiece. 

“Kind of like [against UC Santa Barbara], [UC Irvine] has a bigtime left-handed guy they set a ton and it’ll be a load, for sure,” Wade said of the Rainbow Warriors’ semifinal matchup against the Anteaters. 

First serve for Friday’s semifinal match between #2 UC Irvine and #3 Hawai’i is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. HT / 10:00 p.m. PST, pending the result of the night’s first semifinal matchup between #1 Long Beach State and #5 CSUN.