Jason Kaneshiro: Because of their past success, the University of Hawaii women's volleyball team have a target on their backs

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Sep. 20—Some things just don't change.

The alumnae match scheduled for Friday night had been canceled, but one of the best ever to suit up for the University of Hawaii women's volleyball program took the court in Gym 1 for practice that afternoon.

Robyn Ah Mow jumped into a drill and promptly started flicking sets with the velvety touch that earned her two first-team All-America selections in the mid-1990s and a spot on three U.S. Olympic teams.

High and wide to the pin, a feathery back set, a quick-reflex bump off a tough dig, each of them teed up, begging to be crushed.

Before bringing back memories of her UH Circle of Honor playing career, the fifth-year Rainbow Wahine coach acknowledged another constant within the program—Hawaii's enduring status as the target entering the Big West Conference season.

"All the teams we play, they come at us with their A-game, their A-plus-plus game, " Ah Mow told reporters outside the gym prior to the bye-week practice.

"We keep telling (the players ) everybody just wants to gun against us all the time. Whether they're at the top of the Big West or at the bottom of the Big West, anybody's going to come and gun for us so we just have to be ready."

The attention and expectations are part of the deal for a program that has finished atop the regular-season standings in its conference or division 26 times in the past 33 years. Since a third-place finish in the Big West in 1993—Ah Mow's freshman year as a Wahine player—UH has finished no lower than second in a regular-season race, whether in the Big West or Western Athletic Conference. Included in that stretch was a run of 114 consecutive conference wins stretching from 1998 to 2006.

All of which means facing teams eager to prove themselves against the long-time conference standard.

"I think Dave (Shoji ) painted the target because he kept winning all the time, " Ah Mow said of the Hall of Famer and her predecessor as head coach. "For some reason I think Hawaii is just a target for any team, even non-Big West (teams ). Everybody wants to come and beat Hawaii.

"It's a good thing, " she added. "I tell them, 'Hey, you have to take that. They're going to come and play and that means you're going to get the best volleyball out of each team.'"

UH topped the Big West preseason coaches poll coming out of the lost 2020 season, and the current Wahine emerged from a challenging nonconference schedule with the hope that the growing pains of a 3-5 start did in fact foster growth as they begin defense of the 2019 Big West title on Thursday at UC Riverside.

Three of UH's losses came against teams that have appeared in the AVCA Top 25 this season in Marquette, San Diego and Utah. The Wahine looked sharp in wins over Fairfield, Texas A &M and in their first meeting with Southern Cal. They saw opportunities slip away in losses to reigning WAC tournament champion Utah Valley and in the USC rematch as they continued to search for consistent production in all phases.

"The main thing is you just have to stick by your team and you have to keep grinding it out, " Ah Mow said.

"That's what we're telling them right now. There's a lot of different parts where some girls can do this but they need work in this and just trying to find the right fit."

UH certainly isn't alone in that respect. Cal Poly, the 2017 and'18 champion, was voted second the Big West poll and the Mustangs' 2-9 start included five opponents ranked in last week's AVCA Top 25 in No. 5 Louisville, No. 7 Washington, No. 10 Utah, No. 21 San Diego and No. 24 Pepperdine.

Big West newcomer Cal State Bakersfield leads the conference at 7-1 albeit against a schedule that won't rack up many points in the RPI. UC Irvine (7-3 ) and Long Beach State (6-5 ) are the only other Big West teams above.500 and with a combined 44-65 showing so far as a conference, an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the Big West runner-up isn't all that likely.

All of which adds to the stakes each night for the next 20 matches.

"We obviously have to come out hard and do what we gotta do to win the Big West., " Ah Mow said. "You win the Big West you get a ticket to the NCAAs. We just have to settle down and figure our team out."

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