Resurgent Hawai'i volleyball reaching new (and old) heights

Freshman Hanna Hellvig, who leads 19th-ranked Hawai'i with 188 kills, is among nine newcomers on coach Robyn Ah Mow's team. University of Hawai'i Sports Media Relations

Jolie Rasmussen knew Hawai'i took volleyball seriously before transferring from Oregon earlier this year. Still, she didn't anticipate grocery trips turning into a meet-and-greet.

"Every time I go to the grocery store, people come up and introduce themselves," the junior outside hitter said. "What's really unique is when I'm out with my hair down and not in jersey and they recognize my parents first, just from them being shown on the Jumbotron. It's like, 'You're Rasmussen's parents!' Then they see me and say, 'Oh my god. You're her!'"

Eight weeks into the 2019 season, Rainbow Wahine fans are experiencing something special after a couple of subpar seasons when advancing to the NCAA tournament was in question. This Hawai'i team, with nine newcomers, four of them transfers, has made the kind of noise loud enough to cause a rumble on the mainland.

The Bows (13-2) won their first 12, a streak that included upsets of San Diego and Washington and a road victory against Missouri. They swept UCLA at the Stan Sheriff Center before 8,657 people, the largest crowd to watch any volleyball game this year. (The Stanford-Nebraska rematch is second with 8,632.) Hawai'i checks in at 14th in the inaugural RPI released this week and is 19th in the most recent AVCA poll.

That's the kind of progress Robyn Ah Mow envisioned when she took over after Dave Shoji -- the second-winningest coach in Division I history, who reached the NCAA tournament 35 times and won four national championships (one AIAW and three NCAA) with Hawai'i -- retired in February 2017.

Twice a first team All-American under Shoji, Ah Mow took what she called a dream job at her alma mater, a national power in the sport until Power 5 programs poured more resources into women's athletics.

"I loved playing volleyball here, and the next best thing is coaching," the former Olympian said.

Texas, Nebraska and a pack of Big Ten teams joined the Pac-12 in commanding the best athletes as Hawai'i remained relevant but not dominant. The Bows have advanced to every NCAA tournament except one, last advancing to the final four in 2009.

Fan support remains a constant. Hawaii has never been outside the top three in national attendance and ranks second this season to Nebraska.

"It's amazing; you literally feel like a superstar," senior Norene Iosia said. "You can be out at the market or anywhere and they know who you are. Going out there, I'm getting goose bumps right now -- it really is such a special feeling. You're playing for more than yourself. You're playing for all the players before you and the state."

Ah Mow lamented the team's work ethic her first two years, disappointed when several players didn't dedicate enough of their offseason to conditioning.

"How are we supposed to get better if you can't even last a drill?" she'd ask.

That hasn't been an issue with this year's cast. Joining Rasmussen from Oregon are another outside in Brooke Van Sickle and defensive specialist Kyra Hanawahine, a Honolulu native. Setter Bailey Choy, also from Honolulu, graduated from Utah and entered as a graduate transfer. Swedish national team player Hanna Hellvig is one of five freshmen but has stood out.

"You can be out at the market or anywhere and they know who you are. ... You're playing for more than yourself. You're playing for all the players before you and the state." Hawai'i senior Norene Iosia

A snow volleyball champion in her home country, Hellvig leads the team with 188 kills. Ah Mow had only watched her on video and relied on the assessment of associate head coach Angelica Ljungqvist, a Swedish native.

Hellvig arrived 48 hours before official practice began but quickly found chemistry with her teammates.

"We were on a road trip for 12 days -- I thought they would be at each other's throats," Ah Mow said. "They were still hanging out with each other after 12 days."

When the team is in sync (and healthy), Hawai'i has punch. Rasmussen's debut saw her lead the Bows with 57 kills in three matches against San Diego, Washington and St. John's. She became the ninth Wahine in history to earn AVCA national player of the week honors.

It was the start she dreamed of after deciding to transfer from a Ducks program that reached the regional final last season. At Oregon, she said, "I was someone I didn't recognize and a person I didn't resonate with. I needed a physical change to be able to restart."

She said she also dealt with concussions, broken bones and stitches, but her injury history is not entirely behind her. Rasmussen landed awkwardly on the foot of a West Virginia blocker on Sept. 12 and hasn't played since. She's grateful it's not a season-ending injury but isn't sure when she'll return.

"It sucks," she said. "At this point, I've rehabbed nine ankles in my collegiate career. Other injuries took me out for the season. If I'm going to get injured during the season, I'd rather it be early and I have time and the resources to get better, heal and come back and be stronger."

Rasmussen wasn't in the lineup when Hawai'i dropped its first match at Baylor, currently the top-ranked team in the poll. Baylor swept the Bows, but Hawai'i hung around, dropping the second and third sets by a combined five points.

Yet among Ah Mow's biggest concerns is when opponents don't have a number in front of their name. Hawai'i needed four sets to win each of its first two Big West matches, against Long Beach State and CSUN.

"You guys are scaring me," Ah Mow told her team. "You guys get up really good for the teams that are ranked high. Then the other teams, it's like, 'What are you doing? You're not taking care of the easy stuff.' It's ridiculous."

Such was the case last Friday, a stunning home loss against UC Irvine. The Bows led 2-0 against an Anteaters team that had been winless in its previous 40 games against Hawai'i. Then Van Sickle left with a knee injury in the middle of the third set, and Hawai'i never recovered.

Iosia called Friday a wake-up call, but the alarm bells didn't kick in until 24 hours later when Hawai'i treaded in dangerous territory, down 2-0 to Cal State Fullerton before rallying for a 3-2 victory with all its freshmen on the floor from the third set on.

"That loss hit us super hard," Iosia said. "As a team we didn't bounce in at the beginning of the next game, but it kicked in."

There isn't word on whether Rasmussen or Van Sickle will play this week against Cal Poly, which has overtaken Hawai'i atop the Big West.

Though Hawai'i had won four of five titles since joining the league in 2012, the Mustangs (12-5) have gone 31-1 vs. conference teams in the past two years, were preseason favorites to three-peat and are 5-0 in conference.

Friday's matchup is a sold-out "whiteout" in San Luis Obispo, California, where the Mustangs hold the longest active home win streak in the country at 27.

Hawai'i has had to wait out the NCAA at-large process the past two years, "squeezing in," as Ah Mow said it. A win on Friday would certainly be a statement.

"I need them to come out and play in conference the same way we played in those big games," Ah Mow said. "Or else what we did before isn't going to matter."