VOLLEYBALL: Lady Tops bound for big island, and NCAA tournament

Michael Casagrande

After winning a national-best 33 matches, Western thought it deserved a relaxing vacation on a sunny beach. The Lady Toppers got just that — hold the relaxing part — when they were selected to take on NCAA Tournament host Hawaii tonight in Honolulu.

The announcement came Sunday night on ESPNews. Family and fans joined coach Travis Hudson and his team at Montana Grill for the selection show. By 8 p.m., the scheduled time for the selection show, the atmosphere was electric.

Hudson had waited eight years to see his team land in the Big Dance, but he had to wait an additional 20 minutes as the selection show was delayed for one more round of NFL highlights. The coach could barely contain himself during the excruciating delay.

Finally, the brackets were unveiled and the overflow crowd sat in eager excitement. A tense moment came when Northern Iowa was announced as a host. A sigh of relief came from the team when it was apparent they weren’t making the trek to the snowy plains of the Midwest.

The sighs turned to giddy smiles when Honolulu was named the site of the Central Region opening rounds. In the days following its Sun Belt title and automatic bid to the tournament, the team had joked about playing in Hawaii.

The smiles, jokes and chuckles turned into a roar of disbelief as the bracket appeared on the television screens, and Western’s Polynesian dreams came true.

The euphoric shock continued for 20 minutes as players made frantic cell phone calls home to family and friends.

Sophomore Amanda Schiff was beaming with excitement following the revelation of their destination. She showed her confidence and sense of humor in making her NCAA predictions.

“Oh we’re going, we’re going Final Four!”

Her teammates were less bold, but no less thrilled.

“I just kept screaming,” a jubilant Amanda Cecil said. “I couldn’t even think about it at first, but as soon as I got my thoughts together, I was like ‘Whoa, what a great team.'”

While the trip to Hawaii may sound like a dream come true for the Lady Toppers, many obstacles lay in their way.

The Rainbow Wahine enters the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 team in the nation, but the No. 6 seed in the tournament. Hawaii comes into tonight’s match with a 30-1 record, with its only loss coming to defending NCAA champion Stanford.

“There is initial excitement, obviously, anytime you are getting a trip to the Hawaiian Islands. You’re not going to be too disappointed,” Hudson said. “But from a competitive standpoint, it’s somewhat disappointing. Hawaii is one of the teams that will be competing for a national championship.”

The match will be played in front of one of the most hostile crowds in the country. Hawaii traditionally leads the nation in attendance, selling out the 10,300 seat Stan Sheriff Center on a regular basis.

“I don’t think anything, for any team in the country, can prepare you to go into the Stan Sheriff Center,” Hudson said. “The biggest, best teams in the country go in there, and they are playing in front of five or six thousand more people than they ever played in front of. This will rival the Final Four in terms of atmosphere.”

Hudson is also concerned with the 14-hour flight that spans 4,349 miles. Tonight’s match will begin at 7 local time, but it will be 11 p.m. on the Hill when the first ball drops.

The winner of tonight’s match will meet the winner of the Washington/Colorado State match tomorrow at 7 p.m. in Honolulu.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]