Feb. 21—Perhaps more than most years, this season opener requires a "previously on ..." recap.
When last we saw the Hawaii men's volleyball team on the court, the top-ranked Rainbow Warriors were in the midst of a wild celebration in a raucous Stan Sheriff Center after rallying from two sets down to knock off No. 2 BYU, which had dominated in a sweep the previous night.
A week later, the NCAA men's volleyball season was over due to the spread of COVID-19, a mid-March cliffhanger sending the Warriors into an offseason of uncertainty.
A little more than 11 months later and with most of their leading characters back in their roles, the Warriors enter their 2021 premiere looking to fulfill lofty expectations for the season ahead.
"We're trying to win that last match, as anyone is, " junior libero Gage Worsley said. "For me personally, it's same old just take care of business and try to prepare as best you can and it's the same theme of trying to win that last match of the season."
Hawaii closed last season at 15-1 and ranked second in the country. The Warriors remain No. 2 in the AVCA Coaches Top 15 and tied atop the Off The Block Top 10 media poll with the record wiped clean entering today's season opener at No. 8 UC Irvine.
UH's two-match series with the Anteaters, who went 10-7 last year, starts today with a 2 p.m match at UCI's Bren Events Center, with the rematch set for 5 p.m. Monday. The Warriors then head south for matches at No. 9 UC San Diego (14-5 in 2020 ) on Wednesday and Thursday.
Although both series are against Big West members, the matches are considered nonconference affairs. After the nearly year-long wait, the Warriors don't mind a hectic itinerary to open the schedule.
"We'd literally play anywhere. We'd play on a tennis court if that means we can play an actual game, " Worsley said." We don't even care. We'd play 30 games in 30 days, it doesn't matter to us."
UH, the Big West preseason favorite, opens the conference season with a series at Cal State Northridge on March 11 and 12 and make its home debut March 26-27 against UC San Diego. The Big West tournament is set for April 22-24 at SimpliFi Arena, with the NCAA Championship scheduled for early May in Columbus, Ohio.
UH was set to play at CSUN when last season was halted and this season would have had the feel of picking up where they left off had the Warriors opened in Northridge, Calif. "But we're appreciative and fortunate to get these couple matches in, so it does have a different feel.
"We've been practicing for a while now, so the guys are champing at the bit to play, and everyone is very excited and it's different when the lights come on, especially on the road."
With last season's premature end, class standings were extended a year and UH returns its entire starting lineup led by first-team AVCA All-Americans in Worsley and Rado Parapunov and second-team picks Patrick Gasman and Colton Cowell.
Parapunov, the reigning Big West Player of the Year, is 14 kills away from reaching 1, 000 for his career after averaging 4.47 kills per set last season. Cowell ranked third in the conference with 3.77 kills per set and UH led the nation in hitting percentage at.371. The Warriors were also second in the NCAA in blocks per set (2.74 ), led by middles Gasman and Guilherme Voss.
Freshman Brett Sheward and sophomore Jakob Thelle split starts at setter with eight each and both are back.
Sophomore outside hitter Filip Humler (.373, 2.03 kps ) will not be available this weekend, but a year of development has intensified the level of competition in the practice gym as the Warriors prepare for the new season.
"It seems like we're on several years where we've had legitimate competition battles at every position on the floor, " UH coach Charlie Wade said. "So it makes for good competition and allows you, when you want to, to play A-side, B-side.
"A lot of times if the A-side is a lot better, to get the competition you split it in half and go split squad. We can focus now as we get ready to play with the A-side playing against what is a high-caliber opponent on the other side of the net."
Among those making a push for increased playing time, Wade mentioned freshman Alaka'i Todd, a 6-foot-6 freshman who played in four matches last year, was "the best player in the gym " in a recent practice and 6-foot-7 middle blocker Max Rosenfeld could be the most improved player on the roster.
Unlike a TV series, there is no script to a season and the Warriors are thankful for the opportunity to see how this one plays out.
"Charlie, the Big West and the University of Hawaii and so many other people ... have made this happen, " Worsley said. "We're very grateful ... to the state of Hawaii and we're going to do justice for that."