When the Seawolves' crowd reaches full pitch — when the building seems like it could bounce, the gym feels as if it could gyrate and the volleyball is enveloped in high-volume surround-sound — Diana Fa'amausili thinks it feels like, well, love.
Love received, love returned.
"It feeds us, and definitely feeds me," UAA's sophomore right-side hitter was saying. "We use the crowd, and we try to feed that emotion back to them."
This was late Saturday night. The Alaska Airlines Center, filled earlier with a crown of 1,187, was all but empty in the wake of UAA's come-from-ahead, five-set loss to Cal State San Bernardino in the finale of the NCAA Division II West Region Showcase. Defeat was momentarily crushing to the Seawolves — they surrendered substantial leads in the fourth and fifth sets — and yet as Fa'amausili stood in the hallway outside the locker room, she brightened when talk turned to her team's supporters.
UAA led Division II in attendance in each of the two previous seasons. Led it by a lot. The Seawolves averaged 1,367 fans per match last season, when its closest pursuer at the gate, Angelo State of Texas, barely cracked 900 and the next team after that, Nebraska Kearney, barely cracked 800. Not to put too fine a point on it, but UAA last season drew more than Angelo State's average of 904 in 16 of its 17 home matches, and lured a program-record 2,710 for its West Region championship victory over Western Washington.
"Unreal," Fa'amausili recalled.
On that December night, the cacophony of the crowd reduced the Seawolves on court to literally placing their mouth a centimeter from a teammate's ear to be heard. Even then, communication proved chaotic.
"You couldn't hear your teammates," Fa'amausili said. "We had to do sign language. We had to huddle — a lot."
Junior outside hitter Chrisalyn Johnson of Anchorage — C.J. to her teammates — recalled the noise in the arena was so overwhelming she couldn't hear the public address announcer shout her name to indicate she was rotating into the match from the sideline.
" 'I'm in?' " she recalls asking herself. " 'Was that my name?' "
Maybe part of the lure of the Seawolves is the shiny Alaska Airlines Center, a state-of-the-art building suitable for a Division I program. It's still new — this is just the fourth season of the building — and it has bells and whistles, and it's a swell joint. Witness the scoreboard that hangs over center court and plays a hype video about the Seawolves before their lineup is introduced at match's start.
Still, Johnson says it's the Seawolves' connection to their fans, much more than technology, that makes the relationship special.
"People say it's the building, but it's the fans, definitely," she said. "When I look in the crowd, I see the familiar faces from high school, I see people from the community and people I see in classes. It's a warm feeling."
Of course, it doesn't hurt attendance that the Seawolves have been really, really good of late. Winning draws interest, no question. And the Seawolves last season went 34-3 and finished as national runners-up. They were 27-3 the season before that, and 21-6 the campaign before that. In the three previous seasons, UAA was a combined 40-6 in home matches.
And just as the Seawolves have been embraced by their fans — their average crowd last season bested both of the school's basketball teams and gave the Division I hockey team a run — they return the collective hug. Johnson said players from Alaska — that's six of the 15 players on the roster this season — go back to their high schools and coach summer volleyball, and the program and players engage fans and young volleyball players on social media.
Saturday, players from South High sat in the bleachers at one end of the court. At the other end sat players from East High.
It's still early yet, and UAA has confronted a difficult schedule and gone 4-4, including 2-2 in the Showcase. The Seawolves are marathoners of a sort. They won a five-set match in the morning Saturday and lost a five-setter in the evening, and they've played five five-setters in their opening eight matches, tying the number of five-setters they played in 37 matches last season.
Lot of season left as they pursue a third straight Great Northwest Athletic Conference crown and a fifth straight NCAA appearance. UAA has reached the NCAAs in seven of the last eight seasons under coach Chris Green.
Randy and Ginny Gunther have been attending UAA volleyball for decades now. Randy coached volleyball, and officiated too. Their daughter, Rebekah, babysat former UAA star setter Morgan Hooe of Anchorage when Hooe was an infant. The Gunthers have savored the swelling crowds at UAA volleyball.
"It's good to see it grow, and it's good to see local talent," Ginny said. "There's a lot of good kids up here. The fact that they were so good the last couple seasons helped.
"Part of it was curiosity about the building. And the (acclaim) the girls got last season, and two seasons ago, made people want to come."
Probably doesn't hurt, either, that high-level volleyball is fast and exciting — thundering kill shots, in-your-face blocks, delightful diving defenses. It all generates noise from the stands. That was the case in the second set Saturday night, when Johnson rocketed five of her match-high 22 kills in a span of six Seawolves points.
The ball blasted off Johnson's hammering right hand, and the crowd blasted off.
Felt a lot like love, over and over and over and over and over. Johnson roared, and so did the crowd.
Love received, love returned.
This column is the opinion of sports reporter Doyle Woody. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, check out his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog and follow him on Twitter.com/JaromirBlagr