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Cindy Luis | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | April 30, 2017

Hawaii returns as big dogs facing Penn State in play-in

  No. 4 seed Hawaii plays No. 5 seed Penn State at 8 p.m. ET on May 2.

In dog years, 24 months means a puppy can go from age zero to maturity just like that.

WebMD hasn't extrapolated what 24 months means in volleyball years, but in the case of Hawaii, there is an apparent canine correlation. The Rainbow Warriors are far from being who they were in 2015, the last time they reached the NCAA men's volleyball tournament.

The 24 months have made that much of a difference. They have matured.

They have become big dogs.

Yes, Hawaii (26-5) again is seeded fourth and, yes, the Warriors again will face fifth-seeded Penn State (21-10) in the play-in match. The contrasts, however, between May 5, 2015 and May 2, 2017 are as sharp as the venues and time zones — Maples Pavilion at Stanford, California, and St. John Arena at Ohio State.

Two years ago, the Warriors limped into an at-large berth, having lost sophomores Hendrik Mol and Iain McKellar to season-ending injuries and increasingly having to rely on the over-used arm of senior opposite Brook Sedore and hope the passing would be good enough to get the ball to senior middle Taylor Averill.

RELATED: 2017 interactive bracket | AVCA coaches poll rankings

Hawaii's first NCAA tournament appearance since the (since-vacated) title run in 2002 did not end well. The Warriors were poised to send the match to a fifth set, leading 21-20 and fending off two match points to tie at 25. But the Nittany Lions used senior Aaron Russell's 20th kill to help advance, 25-22, 25-20, 17-25, 27-25.

Two years later, Penn State is without Russell and Nick Goodell (19 kills), but Chris Nugent (15 kills, .400) is more than back. The senior outside hitter was named the most outstanding player of last weekend's EIVA tournament after leading the Nittany Lions to their 18th tournament title in the past 19 years and 30th overall.

"We're glad Aaron Russell isn't on the other side of the net, but they still have Chris Nugent, who did really well against us two years ago," Hawaii coach Charlie Wade said. "They've gone back and forth between two opposites [6-foot-11 freshman Calvin Mende and 6-8 junior Jalen Penrose] but [Mende] is a load to deal with.

"They ran through their tournament and are playing their best volleyball right now."

The losses came early for Mark Pavlik's team, starting with being swept in the Jan. 6 season opener against UCLA. Of their 10 defeats, four were in January, followed by surprising conference losses to Sacred Heart (twice) and Saint Francis (Pa.).

All was forgiven with Penn State's signature victory on March 28, a 3-2 win at home over defending national champion Ohio State. The top-seeded Buckeyes (30-2) have won seven straight since then, surviving in five in last week's MIVA tournament semifinal against Ball State, and will be sitting back with a bye into this Thursday's NCAA semifinal against the winner of the Hawaii-Penn State match.

On the other side of the bracket, newly crowned MPSF champion Long Beach State (27-3) has a bye into Thursday's first semifinal. The second-seeded 49ers will face the winner of Tuesday's first play-in match between third-seeded BYU (24-4), the other at-large selection out of the MPSF, and Conference Carolinas champion Barton (23-5), the sixth seed.

Most expect that Thursday's first semifinal will be an all-MPSF showdown between The Beach and BYU, as happened in last year's national semifinal (won by the Cougars). The teams split their matches during the regular season in Provo, Utah, where the Cougars won in five the first night and the 49ers in a sweep the second night. That victory by Long Beach State proved to be the tiebreaker when the teams finished tied atop the MPSF standings, giving the 49ers the top seed and hosting duties for the MPSF tournament.

Half of this year's tournament field was also there last season, when BYU was the top seed, Ohio State No. 3 and Long Beach State No. 4. The Cougars were upset by the Buckeyes last May 7, five years to the day after winning their first national title. Both of Ohio State's championships came in Penn State's Rec Hall.

The Buckeyes did not make the 2015 NCAA tournament, eliminated by eventual national champion Loyola of Chicago in the MIVA semifinals. Ohio State coach Pete Hanson, however, does have an interesting perspective from two years ago, one that includes the Buckeyes losing to the Warriors 3-1 in the Outrigger Hotels Invitational at the Stan Sheriff Center.

"The difference in us from two years ago is most of the guys who have played this season also played two years ago," said Hanson, the reigning MIVA coach of the year, in a phone interview. "They're older, stronger and more experienced. They've grown up together, are used to playing together. Ours have played together for a lot of matches.

"I think Hawaii is very similar. Look at some of their star players. Jennings [setter Franciskovic] has been setting for over two years, [hitter Kupono] Fey is a senior. Mol is back as a senior middle. Then you have the influx of guys like Larry (libero Tuileta) who has been a steadying influence. They've got some young pieces, the opposite [sophomore Stijn van Tilburg], [freshman middle Patrick] Gasman, who I've worked with in the USA program.

"What they have are veteran leaders who experienced the setback in 2015 and are highly motivated since that point in time. That's a tribute to the older guys who have put their program in this position to be back in the national tournament. They have set the tone, set the message and set the culture."

Hawaii's only losses this season have been to the other MPSF teams here: Long Beach State (3) and BYU (2). The Warriors swept the Cougars in the MPSF tournament semifinal, then lost in four to the host 49ers, a match where Mol went down with a right ankle sprain midway through Set 2.

Mol remained in a walking boot but was off crutches on Friday, Hawaii's last practice at home, and is expected to be cleared to play Tuesday.

This is Hawaii's fifth national tournament appearance and the fifth time the Warriors have opened with Penn State; the postseason series is tied 2-2. The two met twice in 2015, the first at the Outrigger Hotels Invitational (Hawaii 3-0) and then the NCAA play-in match (Penn State 3-1).

"I think we're better prepared for this postseason run," Wade said, "One of the things we learned was the importance of offseason training in order to get bigger, faster, stronger.

"The guys all bought into the offseason conditioning, worked hard so they could get through the grind of the MPSF. You need to be strong late so you are able to play at your best."

The AVCA All-America teams will be announced on Monday. Hawaii, with seven players on the various All-MPSF teams, is expected to add to the program list, which has had 33 players honored, including 21 first-team awards. Franciskovic was an honorable mention in 2015.

This article is written by Cindy Luis from The Honolulu Star-Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.