Hawaii’s rivalry with The Beach endures

Rivalries come and go. There’s been Utah State, Pacific, BYU and New Mexico State.

But the one that has endured for four decades has been Hawaii and The Beach. The two programs have been synonymous with volleyball excellence and are both headed by one of their own all-time greats, both setters and both in their second seasons: Hawaii’s Robyn Ah Mow-Santos and Long Beach State’s Joy McKienzie-Fuerbringer.

Friday’s match doesn’t have the implications of seasons past. Neither the Rainbow Wahine (9-6, 5-1 Big West) nor the 49ers (11-8, 3-3) are ranked nor is it a battle between the top two teams in the conference (Hawaii is second, The Beach is fifth).

Still, there is meaning. There is relevance.

As always.

Long Beach State first-year assistant Sabrina Hernandez has memories. She was the 49ers’ setter for the 1989 NCAA championship team, that title won in Blaisdell Arena following an upset of the Wahine in the Northwest Regional final played the week before at UOP.

“I remember playing in Klum Gym,” said Hernandez, who was 8-3 against Hawaii during her career, including 3-0 in the NCAA tournament. “That atmosphere … you can’t compare it with anything else. The place was packed, there was no air-conditioning.

“It was an electrifying environment and you knew it was going to be a long match and really good volleyball.”

Hernandez has been on the opposing bench in the Stan Sheriff Center a number of times, most recently last season as an assistant at UC Irvine. Outside of the addition of air-conditioning, not much has changed, she said.

“Yes, there is a lot more people now,” Hernandez said, “but there’s still an intimacy to (the Sheriff Center). The Hawaiian fans are so knowledgeable, they appreciate good volleyball, cheer for good play on both sides.

“Some of our freshmen haven’t been in that environment. It’s going to be a real eye-opener for them with all the fans. No matter what, it’s always fun to play in front of a lot of people.”

Long Beach State ended Hawaii’s season in the NCAA tournament five of the six seasons between 1989 and 1994. The teams did not meet in the postseason during Ah Mow-Santos’ last two years as a Wahine (1993-96).

“I think the rivalry is still there,” Ah Mow-Santos said. “It’s different since it’s not Dave (former Wahine coach Shoji) and Brian (former 49er coach Gimmillaro). But it’s the same thing.

“For me, it’s Long Beach and Hawaii. It’s been like that forever and that’s where the excitement is.”

But can the Big West get back to being relevant, to being in the national conversation again as having title-contending teams? Long Beach State’s last championship came in 1998, before emphasis on the Ratings Percentage Index began to weigh heavily in favor of Power Five conferences. Since then, only Long Beach State (2001) and BYU (2014) have made it to the championship match, both losing, the 49ers to Stanford and the Cougars to Penn State.

“It can come back,” Ah Mow-Santos said. “You’ve just got to establish the culture in the gym. But it all depends on the kids. They have got to want to come play.”

“We have remarkable head coaches and they’re working hard to put the Big West back on the map,” Hernandez said. “We are all working hard to get the recruits, trying to schedule in order to be competitive.

“It would be nice to have the resources that the Power Five schools have. It is more difficult now but we did it before and it’s not out of the realm to do it again.”

NOTE: Hawaii’s match on Saturday against Cal State Northridge is “Dig Pink Night” for breast cancer awareness. Pink shirts will be given away to the first 500 fans arriving at the arena and pink apparel will be available at the arena’s H-Zone store. Fans also are encouraged to wear pink.

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