University of Hawaii athletics: Top 12 moments of 2019

Hawaii's Stijn Van Tilburg celebrated with the crowd after scoring a point against Long Beach State in the Big West championship on April 20. / Star-Advertiser file photo by Andrew Lee

The calendar year 2019 was an eventful one for many University of Hawaii sports.

There were conference championships in play for several and some notable NCAA tournament runs.

Without further ado, here are 12 of the biggest moments spanning UH sports in 2019, the final year of this decade. The order of some of the below events and moments is subjective, of course, and you might have one or two in mind that is not here. Feel free to add them in the comments below.

(NOTE: Dave Reardon did a list of his top 10 Hawaii sports figures of the decade, as well.)

12. Women’s basketball nearly makes NCAAs

Amy Atwell got fouled on a drive against UC Davis in the Big West championship game on March 16. / Photo by Darrell Miho, Special to the Star-Advertiser

The Rainbow Wahine had their midseason struggles, including the loss of top player Makenna Woodfolk to pregnancy, but were THISCLOSE to completing a spirited late-season run leading into the Big West tournament and through the championship game against top-seeded UC Davis. On March 16 at Honda Center, Tia Kanoa and the Wahine led the regular season champion most of the way, including by 17 in the second half, and could nearly taste the NCAAs until Laura Beeman’s group was outscored 22-8 in the fourth quarter to lose 58-50. UH would make the WNIT and finish the 2018-19 year 15-17 overall.

11. Football opens season with thriller over Arizona

Hawaii safety Kalen Hicks (3) stopped Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate (14) short of the goal line for the final play of the game in Hawaii’s wild 45-38 season-opening win over Arizona. / Photo by Jamm Aquino, Star-Advertiser

Now that’s how you open a season. The Rainbow Warriors had never beaten Arizona in five prior meetings, but this one was an offensive shootout both ways in Week Zero on Aug. 24 at Aloha Stadium, featuring both UH quarterbacks Cole McDonald and Chevan Cordeiro putting up numbers. Who can forget defensive lineman Manly “Pumba” Williams hustling to track down Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate at the 1-yard line as time expired? It preserved a 45-38 win, which UH would follow up by beating Oregon State 31-28 the following game.

10. Petra Melounova makes NCAA sweet 16

UH tennis player Petra Melounova advanced farther in the NCAA tournament than any Wahine player to date. / Photo by Craig T. Kojima, Star-Advertiser

Never before had a UH tennis player advanced to the third round of the 64-player NCAA singles tournament, men or women. Petra Melounova, a junior engineering major from the Czech Republic, came into the field ranked 61st and employed a drop shot-style serve because of a lingering shoulder injury. The three-time Big West Player of the Year rode that unconventional style past two higher-ranked players before falling to Texas Tech’s Felicity Maltby, 7-5, 6-0 at the USTA Campus in Orlando, Fla., in May.

9. Swim teams sweep MPSF for first time
Under since-Stanford-hired coach Dan Schemmel, the UH men’s and women’s swimming and diving squads pulled off an unprecedented sweep of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation team titles at two Southern California sites in February. For the UH women, it was the next step in a series of steady gains — a third straight MPSF title. For the men, it was a true breakthrough, as they won the MPSF for the first time. The UH divers were especially dominant, sweeping all three events (1 meter, 3 meter, platform) on both the men’s and women’s sides.

8. Water polo claims Big West crown

Irene Gonzalez, one of the top goal scorers in UH water polo history, finally broke through with a Big West championship as a senior. / Star-Advertiser file photo by Darryl Oumi

The Wahine water polo squad had hit a bit of a dry spell in recent years, but that changed sharply in 2019 behind the Irene Gonzalez and Femke Aan-led squad. UH had clinched a share of the BWC regular-season title, but because of a 7-6 loss at UC Irvine, the top tournament seed went to the Anteaters. But on April 28 in Long Beach State’s pool, the Wahine flipped that around, topping UCI 7-6 to earn the first NCAA tournament berth since 2015 for coach Maureen Cole. The Wahine fell to Cal in a 17-13 shootout in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals at Stanford, finishing 18-6.

7. Men’s volleyball sets NCAA straight-sets record

Fans gave Hawaii a standing ovation when UC Santa Barbara ended the Rainbow Warriors NCAA-record set streak at 74. / Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell, Star-Advertiser

The electrifying Rainbow Warriors just kept going, and going, and going. Stijn van Tilburg, Rado Parapunov, Joe Worsley and Co. opened the season without dropping a set, home or away, again and again, until it became THE defining subplot of much of the resurgent season of #WarriorBall19. Even at notoriously tough BYU, the Warriors swept the Cougars. Finally, a sold-out Stan Sheriff Crowd — the first for men’s volleyball since 1997 — witnessed the set streak come to an end at 74 in the second frame against Big West foe UC Santa Barbara on April 6. UH received a much-deserved ovation.

6. Soccer qualifies for first Big West tournament

Alexis Mata saved a shot by UC Santa Barbara on Oct. 27 en route to Big West Goalkeeper of the Year honors. / Photo by Bruce Asato, Star-Advertiser

Since 2012, the Wahine soccer team fell short — sometimes well short — of qualifying for the four-team Big West tournament. Michele Nagamine’s teams seemed truly snakebitten, like when the 2018 season ended at home on senior night with a loss to last-place and winless Cal State Fullerton with a berth on the line. But behind an out-of-nowhere surge from sophomore Kayla Ryan and a Big West Goalkeeper of the Year season from Alexis Mata, the Wahine got a result (win or draw) in their first five matches, and essentially clinched a berth with a 3-2 win at UC Davis on Oct. 31. They went 4-1-3 in league play and lost to top-seeded Fullerton 3-0 in their first BWC tourney match.

5. Women’s volleyball reclaims Big West

Hawaii libero Rika Okino held a the Big West championship banner after UH beat Long Beach State on Nov. 22. / Photo by Steven Erler, Special to the Star-Advertiser

Hawaii is not used to standing by and watching as someone else hoists a conference championship, so when Cal Poly did that for the last two years — the first two years of Robyn Ah Mow’s coaching tenure in Manoa — it was unsettling. It appeared UH faced an uphill battle again after it lost in straight sets in San Luis Obispo, Calif., on Oct. 11, but that was the precursor to UH turning over the keys to the engine (hitting and serving) to senior Norene Iosia. UH rattled off 11 Big West wins in a row — including key matches at home over UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly — capped with a sweep of Long Beach State on senior night Nov. 22 for UH’s first outright BWC crown since 2016.

4. Women’s volleyball advances to NCAA regional

Hawaii middle blocker Amber Igiede, left, celebrated with teammates after their straight-sets win over San Diego for UHs first regional appearance since 2015. / Photo by Bruce Asato, Star-Advertiser

Winning the Big West was one thing. Getting through a subregional at home — something UH could not do the last time it had that opportunity in 2013 — was another matter entirely. UH appeared to be at a crossroads against its opening round foe, Northern Colorado, when the Bears took Set 2 from the Wahine. But energized by the return of junior hitter Jolie Rasmussen in Set 3, the 18th-ranked Wahine rallied to defeat UNC in four sets, then took care of San Diego (a troublesome foe rematched from the first night of the season) in straight sets to punch their regional ticket to Madison, Wis. There, the Wahine lost to powerful Nebraska in straight sets to end their successful season at 26-4.

3. Football takes Hawaii Bowl from BYU

The Hawaii Rainbow Warriors raised the 2019 SoFi Hawaii Bowl trophy after beating BYU 38-34 on Christmas Eve. / Photo by Jamm Aquino, Star-Advertiser

A dream matchup in the Christmas Eve SoFi Hawaii Bowl yielded a dream outcome for the Rainbow Warriors — a double-digit win season and a hard-fought win over an old rival. UH had to scrap and claw with the Cougars for the 38-34 win, with Cole McDonald making a key fourth-quarter drive and touchdown pass to freshman Nick Mardner, and sophomore safety Khoury Bethley coming up with the game-preserving interception, his second of the night. It was UH’s first win over its old WAC foe since the Nick Rolovich-led 72-45 blowout of 2001. Rolovich, the Mountain West Coach of the Year, guided UH to a 10-5 record, its first double-digit win season since 2010.

2. Football wins Mountain West West Division title

Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich celebrated with Hawaii linebacker Paul Scott after beating San Diego State 14-11 for the Mountain West West Division title on Nov. 23. / Photo by Jamm Aquino, Star-Advertiser

Hawaii was not expected to come close to contending for the Mountain West West Division title — and it seemed the Rainbow Warriors were truly out of the hunt after a 41-38 home loss to Fresno State on Nov. 2, dropping them to 2-3 in the West. But the plucky ‘Bows rallied to beat San Jose State, and won at UNLV for the first time since 2007. To boot, San Diego State slipped against Nevada, setting up a for-all-the-marbles matchup at Aloha Stadium on Nov. 23. In a defensive slugfest, UH did just enough, and Chevan Cordeiro rallied UH off the bench, while the Aztecs missed a 48-yard field goal in the final seconds of UH’s 14-11 win. UH claimed its first MWC division title and advanced to its first conference championship game, where it lost 31-10 at Boise State.

1. Men’s volleyball tops Long Beach State for Big West title

Hawaii celebrated after outlasting Long Beach State for the Big West championship at the Stan Sheriff Center on April 20. / Photo by Andrew Lee, Special to the Star-Advertiser

Sheer madness. April 20, one of the most memorable nights in the 25-year history of the Stan Sheriff Center, is unquestionably the top moment of 2019 for University of Hawaii sports. The hated Beach had already won twice in Long Beach, both five-setters. By this point, the teams, ranked 1-2, had established themselves as far-and-away the best two teams in the country. Everyone knew there would likely be another matchup in the NCAA tournament, but for the moment, that did not matter. The rabid sellout crowd shook the Sheriff to its foundations and willed the ‘Bows across the finish line. Stijn van Tilburg pounded 25 kills without an error (.543) and Colton Cowell added 18 (.471) as UH closed out strong in the 25-15, 25-23, 22-25, 20-25, 15-8 epic battle, giving UH its first Big West title in the sport and setting up one last matchup with Josh Tuaniga, TJ DeFalco and Kyle Ensing at Long Beach. LBSU claimed the national championship in four on May 4.


  1. darkfire35 January 1, 2020 4:40 pm

    Amazing article and insights as usual Brian! I remember some of those moments like they happened yesterday; I still get chicken skin thinking about them! Mahalo nui loa for all your hard work and talent! Here’s wishing you a Blessed and Prosperous New Year with hopefully more outstanding stories to tell for UH in 2020!

  2. Brian McInnis January 2, 2020 10:58 pm

    Thanks, Happy New Year to you too.

  3. cappie the $2000 dog January 3, 2020 3:39 pm

    13. Hawaii 54 Nevada 3(The way Hawaii beat Nevada at their place reminded me of the 56-14 victory over BYU.)
    14. Hawaii 75 Texas 62(Because Texas beat #1 Stanford. Come tournament selection time, this loss by Texas will come up if the Longhorns don’t get the seed they’re looking for.)
    15. Hawaii 62 Washington 50(If the Huskies are on the bubble, this loss will keep them out.)

    I watched the Penn webcast. I watched the Texas Southern game in person. #14 and #15 are crazy wins.

    16. Softball team wins 33. Too bad DePaul skipped out of town. How is that legal? And the rainout in Vegas, which cost them a game against BYU.

  4. UHSportsFan January 4, 2020 12:21 am

    Love seeing a collective of UH sports prospering.

  5. H-Man January 4, 2020 10:46 am

    Anyone following Warrior football recruiting? Any hot prospects?

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