From the moment West Virginia coach and Reed Sunahara flashed double shakas to the Stan Sheriff Center crowd that cheered for him during opening intros, the Hilo High alum felt at home.
For an opposing head coach making his return to his native state, Sunahara looked the part, too. He and other male members of his staff donned yellow and blue aloha shirts, matching the Mountaineers’ team colors with a little island twist.
“A friend of mine got it for us. It was from Rix,” said Sunahara, who played his college ball at UCLA and won three national titles with the Bruins. “I thought they looked sharp and he thought it was gonna look good for us, too. I like wearing Aloha shirts.”
The visitors made it tough for No. 18 Hawaii in the early going, but the Rainbow Wahine improved to 7-0 after an 18-25, 25-17, 25-17, 25-12 victory over the Mountaineers (4-3) on Thursday night.
As Cincinnati’s head coach from 2000 to 2011, Sunahara had taken his teams to the SSC three times entering Thursday’s matchup. His squads had never been able to take a set from the Rainbow Wahine, but that changed quickly in his first go round with West Virginia.
The Mountaineers took the first set 25-18. The seven-point differential was the largest advantage they had all night, and Katelyn Evans and Audrey Adams each had a match-high four kills in the opening set.
“It was a big momentum boost. We were grinding and just playing, and making plays,” Sunahara said. “I was happy with the results in the first set but after that, I just think Hawaii kept the pressure on us and they kept attacking and attacking and we couldn’t make adjustments.”
Lacey Zerwas dished out 12 assists in the first stanza, which was more than the nine Hawaii had as a team. The Mountaineers out-dug the Rainbow Wahine 20-17 as well and held the ‘Bows to a season-low .049 hitting percentage. The home team was outperformed in almost every category besides a 6-2 blocking advantage.
“It was a great atmosphere no matter who the fans for cheering for,” said Zerwas, who finished with a match-high 31 assists. “When the fans are cheering, it’s exciting. It creates a great environment. Hawaii fans, they’re amazing, so it was great.
“We wish we could’ve finished, but taking that set is just for step for us in becoming great.”
The night proved to be bittersweet for Sunahara. Though it was the first time he’d taken a set off the Wahine, it was also the first time his parents weren’t among those in attendance. Sunahara’s father passed away last September.
“He lived a good life. He was 93 years old, he taught me a lot. Him and my mom taught me a lot. They’ll be missed but they’re watching from above,” he said. “It’s sad when your parents aren’t here. They were always supportive of me in whatever I did and our programs, whether I was at Cincinnati or played at UCLA, and now.
“I know they’re with me. It was a little emotional but I know they’re up there watching.”
Hawaii coach Robyn Ah Mow called a timeout as West Virginia opened up set 2 with a 6-3 lead. A quick 5-0 run by Hawaii turned an 8-5 deficit into a 10-8 advantage for the Rainbow Wahine, causing Sunahara to burn a timeout of his own. The Wahine stretched that lead to 14-9, leading to another timeout. The ‘Bows ultimately cruised to a 25-17 set victory, although West Virginia staved off four consecutive set points to close the gap before freshman Hanna Hellvig shut the door with a block, evening the match at one set apiece.
“It’s always great coming back to Hawaii and playing in front of this great crowd. I thought we were playing pretty well in the first set and part of the second and the wheels fell off,” Sunahara said. “We gotta continue to get better and work on our game. Hawaii started making adjustments and they figured things out and we couldn’t adjust to what they were doing.”
UH’s Jolie Rasmussen and WVU’s Briana Lynch collided in the third set with the ‘Bows up 6-2, causing a somber and brief pause in the action as the 3,453 in attendance fell collectively silent. The Wahine opened their lead up to 11-4, before four unanswered points by the Mountaineers caused a timeout. It was an otherwise smooth set for the home team, who took another set 25-17.
After the match, Lynch was seen walking out of the arena, while Rasmussen was on crutches.
“I didn’t really see what happened because I was looking down at my sheet,” Sunahara said. “I just saw both Jolie and our player go down. I just hope everything’s OK. She sprained her ankle, our player sprained her ankle too so I just hope the recovery’s fast and both players get back on the court quick.”
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) September 13, 2019
WVU seemed to run out of gas in the fourth set as UH cruised to a 25-12 victory. Brooke Van Sickle and Amber Igiede each had a match-high 14 kills for the ‘Bows, while Van Sickle’s 11 digs gave her a double-double.
The Mountaineers have remained in the Western U.S. for over a week after going 1-2 in the San Diego State Tournament from Sept. 5-7. Sunahara said the extended road trip has not hindered the team.
Up next for West Virginia is a quick turnaround in a Friday afternoon matchup with UCLA, Sunahara’s alma mater. To Zerwas and the rest of the Mountaineers, there’s surely some extra motivation in the consecutive sentimental matchups for their coach.
“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Zerwas said. “I mean, he’s a legend here and we want to continue to build off of that.”