Big Dreams In The Big West
Robyn Ah Mow’s patient approach to coaching has her Rainbow Wāhine volleyball team soaring this season. Next up for the Big West Conference champs: a berth in the NCAA tourney
There may be no team more beloved in this state than University of Hawai‘i women’s volleyball.
They’ve sold out their home court, Stan Sheriff Center, some 15 times, with their latest coming on Senior Night on Nov. 22, where they also clinched the Big West Conference championship by sweeping Long Beach State, 25-18, 25-12, 25-20.
The No. 18 Rainbow Wāhine ended the season with a 24-3 overall record (14-2 in Big West). They then faced Northern Colorado in the first round of the NCAA Championship last Friday at home — after Kaua‘i Midweek went to press — and if they win, they’ll play the second round at home, too, against No. 20 San Diego or No. 23 Washington State.
All in all, it’s a nice capstone for third-year head coach Robyn Ah Mow.
“I just think this team is special in some way,” she admits. “We like to go all the way, but these girls really pushed hard this year.
“I walked into the first practice — they were already sweating, ‘Come on, coach.'”
Ah Mow, of course, is something of a legend in UH volleyball herself.
In her time at UH, in 1993-96, the McKinley High School grad led her team to a 66-4 record and a 1996 NCAA title match appearance, wracking up 4,313 assists and 11.23 assists per game in the process. The setter was a two-time AVCA first-team All-American who eventually went on to represent the U.S. at three Olympic Games — earning a silver medal in the process.
Ah Mow’s decorated playing career informs a lot of what she does as a coach.
“The big thing along the way was patience,” she says. “I think it’s great when you have coaches that have been players, and they played in different levels of the game.
“I keep telling all the girls: My style of coaching is from a whole bunch of different coaches I’ve been coached by, and I learned a lot of things from them, whether it’s a good or bad thing.”
She offers a few examples. One coach, she says, had an amazing understanding of the game, but he wasn’t “a good person.” Another of her coaches would march up and down the court during games.
“I felt like, oh, that’s kind of awesome, he’s like in the game right now and helping us go through the game. To see the coach’s passion, it made me play harder.”
And, of course, she learned a lot from Dave Shoji, the 42-year former head coach of UH women’s volleyball — a man who needs no further introduction.
“He was a lot different when he coached us,” she laughs of her time as his assistant between 2011 and 2015. “He was hardcore, man. Practices were harder.
“When I came back, I was like, ‘Ho, you got real soft, huh?’ Back then, he was really hard. I’m not saying he didn’t demand it in the last couple of years, but … when I came back to coaching with him, he had a lot of patience — because I didn’t have any. He’s like, it’s OK, it’s OK, and I’m like no, it’s not.
“It’s a good thing to be into what you’re doing, but it’s like, OK, you have to have a little bit of patience, too.”
It was a lesson that applied very much to this year’s successful season — Ah Mow’s first conference title as head coach.
“We had the first three weekends at home, and we were 9-0 and playing with freshmen on the court — but hey, what can we do better? Look at all these things we can do better,” she says of this 2019 season.
She admits that the team’s few losses made her buckle down and go extra hardcore.
“We played Baylor — obviously we lost, we got swept — but when we get back, we gotta focus on all these easy balls; we’re not handling them right. If we can just do a little more, games would be easier for us.”
The team’s losses to UC Irvine and California State University, Northridge made Ah Mow push the team harder.
But when the women continued to struggle, Ah Mow rethought her approach.
“Maybe it got in their heads too much,” she muses. “Hey, we’re not that good — no, you’re 13-2; no, you’re still good. And right after that, we played Santa Barbara, and it was probably the best game we ever played.”
The ups and downs of the season taught Ah Mow — who was named 2019 Co-Coach of the Year in the Big West — even more about the value of patience.
“I learn every year,” she laughs.
Perhaps the most telling fact that Ah Mow has come into her own is the feelings of her players.
“I’ve learned so much from her that I don’t know where to start,” says senior setter Norene Iosia, reigning Big West Player of the Year.
“Work hard in any aspect of your life, and just be fully
committed to what you’re trying to do in life, whether it’s on the court, going hard on the court; if you’re in a gym, as well as school, giving 110 percent in school — just a lot of life lessons in … being grateful and humble about people you come across in life and the lessons they come to teach you,” she summarizes.
The gratification of working hard is echoed by senior outside hitter McKenna Ross, who made it onto the Big West honorable mention team.
“I hadn’t really started till my senior year, but I always felt that drive to practice hard and stuff because of her. That really helped my time here: not giving up when things
didn’t go my way. She taught me to keep pushing and earn my spot.”
Ah Mow, for her part, looks to be settling in to create her own dynasty of success.
“I love Hawai‘i; I was born and raised here. I love the program, all the ladies that played here before me … and what they’ve built here, what Dave’s built here, is special.
“I’ve played a lot of different places, and it’s special here. It’s crazy because I can go to lots of different states and countries and be like, ‘Hey! Didn’t you play at UH?'”
For NCAA tourney updates, visit hawaiiathletics.com.
Two freshmen players this year seem likely to grow into senior superstars.
Head coach Robyn Ah Mow says to keep your eyes on outside hitter Hanna Hellvig and middle blocker Amber Igiede.
“She’s played overseas and internationally, so she feels comfortable here playing,” Ah Mow says of Hellvig. “I was worried, I was like, ‘Hey, Hanna, there’s a lot of people out there,’ and she’s like, ‘OK, coach.'”
Of Igiede, she notes that she hails from a style of play that is slower than what UH fans are accustomed to, which led to some initial — but quickly overturned — concern.
“She held her own as a freshman,” Ah Mow notes. And of course, the accolades poured in for both, as the duo earned spots on the Big West First Team, and Hellvig also collected the title of Big West Freshman of the Year.
THE BEST FANS IN THE WORLD
Ask any University of Hawai‘i volleyball player — male or female — and they’ll tell you that Hawai‘i has the best fans in the world.
“The fans here literally love volleyball,” says senior setter Norene Iosia. “They know the game of volleyball, they know the stats, they know every single thing. They create this atmosphere of playing the game as a professional game. You always hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and all the sound effects.
“No matter who we play, we always get a good amount of people supporting us.”
The sentiment is echoed by senior outside hitter McKenna Ross.
“They always come to our games, even if they’re here or away. There’s a huge fan base most times at our away games. We have more fans than the home crowd.”
Kaua‘i Midweek asked UH women’s volleyball head coach Robyn Ah Mow to pick out two of her most memorable experiences as a player.
Her time at UH had a high point when the team conquered BYU in the NCAA regional final in 1996, she says (that team would go all the way to the ~ nal round).
“They had beaten us in the WAC title, so we got into our heads, ‘Oh, you can have this one,'” she recalls of the team’s attitude heading into the revenge match.
As an Olympian — she played for the U.S. women’s indoor team between 1999 and 2008 — she recalls her first games at Sydney as a particular highlight.
“I never thought that I would walk into an Olympic stadium, never. When I was a kid, I never thought I’d be at UH either, but to be on the national team when you’re pushing 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8, with all these people averaging 6 feet, and to walk in that tunnel when other people are chanting ‘USA!’ even if you’re in another country — that experience was awesome.”