Brendan Yu | Off the Block senior reporter
In a clash between two of the nation’s premier programs, No. 2/2 Hawai’i demolished No. 3/3 UC Irvine in straight sets 33-31, 25-19, 25-14 in an emphatic statement win at the Bren Events Center Friday night.
Hawai’i (11-0, 1-0 Big West) came roaring out of the gate with an intensity that UC Irvine (13-3, 2-1 Big West) struggled to match, as they outhit (.411-.182), outdug (30-22) and outblocked (6.0-5.0) the host ‘Eaters. In the process, Hawai’i, who has yet to drop a game all season, set a new program record of 33 consecutive won games.
“That’s just kind of unheard of, consecutive set streaks,” coach Charlie Wade said. “We never talk about it, and didn’t tonight, and won’t tomorrow. We just try to win the match and move on.”
For those familiar with the Rainbow Warriors, Wade’s statement should hardly come as a surprise. Some random school record doesn’t help Hawai’i going forward, nor does it secure them a berth into the NCAA Tournament. Ask the Rainbow Warriors, and they’ll be the first to tell you that they’ve yet to do anything worth noting.
“We have the same mentality that we have not achieved anything until we get to the finish line,” middle attacker Colton Cowell said. “We prefer to think of the season as a marathon, and not a sprint, and we want to keep bringing in the same intensity, the same work ethic, the same discipline every night.”
Last year, UC Irvine was controversially awarded the final at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament over Hawai’i, despite the Bows having a stronger RPI ranking and winning the season series. The Rainbow Warriors are looking to prevent a repeat of last year through the only surefire way they can: winning.
“We didn’t get a chance to compete for the national championship last year when we thought we were deserving, but we didn’t win enough matches, and that’s one of our things this year in our discussion;” Wade said. “We have yet to accomplish anything meaningful this year. There’s a ton of volleyball left to play this year… and hopefully we get down to the end of the year and we get the chance to compete for a national championship.
“We just keep trying to control what we can control and that is winning night in and night out.”
Rado Parapunov led Hawai’i with a match-high 18 kills, 12 of which came in the crucial first set. Cowell, who shouldered the majority of the offensive load in the final two games, finished with 11 kills on a .588 hitting percentage. Stijn van Tilburg added nine kills while Gage Worsley notched a match-best 10 digs.
UC Irvine did not have a single player tally double-digit kills, as Joel Schneidmiller and Karl Apfelbach led the Anteaters with nine and eight kills.
One of the few bright spots for UC Irvine on was Alexandre Nsakanda who notched four kills off the bench on a team-best .500 hitting efficiency.
The Rainbow Warriors took an early 12-8 lead off an 8-2 run and led for the majority of the first set before the Anteaters retook the lead at 21-20 off a scoring run of their own. UCI held double-set point at 24-22, but Hawai’i peeled off three straight to take the lead at 25-24. From then, both teams kept siding out, with neither able to capitalize on set point. After nine unconverted set points, an ace by Cowell put an end to the grueling marathon set at 33-31.
“[Wade] actually told me to serve from a different location than I had been during the entire set,” Cowell said. “So I kind of thought to myself at that point, ‘Why not?’ I had intention with what I was doing, but the serve came off a little bit better than I expected.”
Hawai’i wasted no time setting the tone in the second set, as the Rainbow Warriors unloaded kill after kill that left the Anteaters at a loss for an answer. The Rainbow Warriors would lead 10-8, but that score was not indicative of just how easily the Rainbow Warriors were asserting their will against the Anteaters. Of UC Irvine’s eight points, five of them came off of Hawai’i service errors. Hawai’i would not commit another service error as they handedly claimed the second set 25-19.
In the final set, Hawai’i’s high-octane offense pulled into yet another gear, as they dismantled UCI 25-14 to hand the ‘Eaters their first three-set loss since 2017. While UCI periodically showed signs of life, the ‘Eaters looked dazed and for the most part, utterly lost in the third set. At one point, a dig was inexplicably left to freefall onto the court for an easy Hawaii point.
After hitting for .300 in the first set, the Bows offense only continued to heat up, as they improved to .429 in the second before erupting for a blistering .591 in the final set. The ‘Eaters, however, regressed with each passing set, as they started off hitting .263 before finishing with a dismal .042 in the third.
“I definitely would’ve liked to see us play a little bit more in that point to point mentality that we talk about,” UC Irvine head coach David Kniffin said. “We definitely got caught up in the pressure and some of the errors, and when you’re playing like that against a good team and one play you’re thinking about the next play, it’s hard to put your full attention in the play at hand. And against Hawaii, you need to put your full attention at the play at hand.”
The two teams will meet again in the Bren at 7 p.m. today. Despite rolling through the ‘Eaters in straight sets, the Bows are expecting anything but a repeat of last night’s game.
“It’s nice to enjoy the success of competing and eventually beating a great team like Irvine,” Colwell said. “However we have to come back here tomorrow and bring the same exact fire because we know they’re going to play better, so we have to match that, if not up our intensity as well.”