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Oct. 15—When Robyn Ah Mow first coached Tayli Ikenaga at the club level, she was impressed by the high school freshman's sense of calm on the court.
"She wasn't up and down, up and down, " Ah Mow recalled. "And she was (5-foot-5 ) and hitting outside, passing, defense, everything, "
As Hawaii's head coach, Ah Mow recruited Ikenaga to focus on defense for the Rainbow Wahine volleyball team and has written the Moanalua graduate into the lineup as UH's starting libero in each of this season's first 14 matches.
If Ikenaga still has some freshman jitters, she hasn't let them surface much as a mainstay in the back row for all 51 sets this season.
"I still get kind of nervous getting to play, especially going to the mainland and in front of crowds that I never played in front of, or (against ) these schools I've never played ever before, " Ikenaga said. "It's a very good learning opportunity."
Ikenaga's defensive presence helped the Wahine keep their collective cool in two four-set road wins last week and her introduction to conference intensity continues today when the Rainbow Wahine (9-5, 6-0 Big West ) face Cal Poly (8-10, 6-1 ) in a Big West showdown at SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center.
UH's homestand concludes Saturday with the first Big West visit from Cal State Bakersfield (10-5, 3-4 ).
The Wahine enter today's match tied for the conference lead with UC Santa Barbara, with Cal Poly again among the frontrunners.
Hawaii and Cal Poly have occupied the top two spots in the final Big West standings in each of the past three seasons. Cal Poly went 16-0 in 2017 to finish two games ahead of UH, and a single match was the difference in the Mustangs' title defense in 2018. The Wahine claimed the title in 2019 at 14-2 with Cal Poly a game behind.
The streak faced some anxious moments over the past two weeks when the Wahine were extended to five sets in a home win over Cal State Fullerton on Oct. 3 and dropped the opening sets in road matches at UC San Diego and UC Irvine.
The Wahine answered in the second set and pulled out 27-25 wins in the third both times on their way to the victories over the Tritons and Anteaters.
"I don't know if it's the speeches with the coaching staff or among themselves, but it's a never-quit attitude, " Ah Mow said of the comebacks.
Ikenaga's defensive efforts helped UH overcome the nervy moments and she was rewarded with the Big West Freshman of the Week award on Monday after posting 35 digs in the Southern California series.
"I'm very grateful I got it, but more importantly I'm very grateful our team did a really good job (last ) week, " Ikenaga said.
While UH emerged from its recent roller coaster still atop the conference, Cal Poly kept pressure on the leaders with a four-match winning streak that has been far less dramatic.
The Mustangs went 2-9 in a challenging nonconference schedule that included losses to five nationally ranked opponents. But they've won their past 12 sets by an average margin of 8.7 points and allowed an opponent to reach 20 points just three times over that stretch. They posted a.360 hitting percentage while holding opponents to.115 during their current run.
Cal Poly began the week by rolling to a 25-18, 25-19, 25-9 win over Cal State Bakersfield on Tuesday at the Mott Athletic Center, hitting.372 overall and going 9-for-9 in sideout opportunities in the third-set rout.
Senior outside hitter Jamie Stivers leads the Mustangs attack with 3.49 kills per set—good for fourth in the Big West—with a.270 hitting percentage and has support with the emergence of freshman outside hitters Tommi Stockham (2.81 kps ) and Amy Hiatt (2.18 ).
On the other side of the net, Ah Mow said the Wahine remain focused on whether "we can take care of what we need to take care of."
UH enters the weekend as the top blocking team in the Big West with 2.46 per set and both teams are hitting.266 in conference matches. UH outside hitter Brooke Van Sickle moved to the top of the conference with 4.73 points per set and remains second with 4.02 kills per set.
BIG WEST VOLLEYBALL At SimpliFi Arena at Stan Sheriff Center Cal Poly (8-10, 6-1 BWC ) vs. Hawaii (9-5, 6-0 )—When : Today, 7 p.m.—TV : Spectrum OC16—Radio : 1420-AM / 92.7-FM