Haili: In what might be a first, Vulcans take top title

  • RICK OGATA photo St. Joseph grad Sarah Mason hits for A Mother’s Prayer.
  • RICK OGATA photo UH-Hilo’s Ashton Jessee hammers a ball Saturday at Hilo Civic in the women’s AA final. The Vuls beat A Mother’s Prayer 22-25, 26-24, 15-12. For information on purchasing an Ogata photo, email guppies4me@gmail.com.

There are no official records kept at the Haili Volleyball Tournament and no one could state for certain, but maybe this year was the first time UH-Hilo won the women’s AA title.

The Vulcans stunned A Mother’s Prayer 22-25, 26-24, 15-12 on Saturday at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, taking the top division in the 61st edition.


Then something weird happened. There was sparse applause. And the fans quietly left.

Maybe people were shocked that a team stacked with some of the state’s best local players — Kanani Danielson, Sarah Mason, Marley Strand-Nicolaisen, and Kaiu Ahuna — fell to a Division II collegiate squad.

Last season, the Vuls finished 9-18 under first-year coach Gene Krieger. It was their sixth consecutive losing season.

Danielson was a four-time All-American at Hawaii (2008-11). Mason was a two-time All-WAC first-team pick at UH (2005-06). In 2016, Strand-Nicolaisen was UHH’s first All-PacWest first-team selection since 2011. Ahuna is a senior at UC Riverside, a Division I school.

Maybe the energy was drained from Hilo Civic after Aloha Days, an Oahu team, beat Sons, a Hilo squad, 21-25, 25-23, 15-8 to repeat for the men’s AA championship.

Kailua, a perennial powerhouse often filled with former Rainbow Warriors, didn’t enter the tournament.

Last year, A Mother’s Prayer lost the women’s AA crown to Teine Samoa Moni, which was stacked with All-Americans.

Danielson was on the team, along with Tanya Fuamatu-Anderson, a three-time All-American at UHH (1992-95); Nia Tuitele, another All-American at Hawaii Pacific, which won national titles in 1998 and 2000; and Edna (Togiai) Walker, another All-American and UHH Hall of Famer like Fuamatu-Anderson.

That AMP squad was the AA debut for Strand-Nicolaisen, a 2013 Ka‘u graduate, and the second time for Ahuna, a 2015 Kamehameha graduate.

In 2015, Ahuna played on Pilipaa, which became the first group of high school seniors to reach the AA final.

Chris Leonard was the Pilipaa coach then and still coaches the club team. He’s now a UHH assistant, and the six degrees of Kevin Bacon keeps the volleyball community connected.

Ahuna and her club teammates lost to Honolulu’s HI Intensity, which was coached by Kahala Kabalis Hoke, Chaminade’s coach and the daughter of Carla Carpenter-Kabalis, another UHH Hall of Famer.

Maybe UHH’s round of applause was muted because the fans were pulling so hard for their local girls.

The Vuls don’t have anyone with Big Island roots, and A Mother’s Prayer is flooded with BIIF players: Ahuna, Strand-Nicolaisen, Mason (St. Joseph), Erika Kaawa (Honokaa), Tehani Kupahu-Canon (Kamehameha), Tiani Teanio (Waiakea), and Desarri Olevao (Hilo).

Krieger is trying to bring in more BIIF players. He has recruited two — one from Kamehameha (a setter) and another from Waiakea (a middle blocker) — that UHH has yet to announce.

In any case, Ashton Jessee, from Alaska, had 10 kills, and Armani Moultrie, from Inglewood, Calif., added seven kills for the Vuls, who looked much sharper with their ball-control.

With limited clean swings, Danielson knocked down 11 kills, Strand-Nicolaisen had seven, Mason smashed six kills, and Ahuna dropped five kills.

The match almost had a women’s version of a phantom point, an unforgettable moment in Haili’s history.

In 2009, Big Island Roots, gunning to become the first homegrown team to win the men’s AA title, tied Kailua 14-14 in Game 2.

But a phantom point showed up on the scoreboard, Kailua led 15-14 and later closed out the match for the championship.

In 2016, Lil Braddahs, a collection of BIIF standouts from Waiakea and Pahoa, beat Kailua for the AA title and the honor as the first or second all-Big Isle champion squad. (Upon video review, Big Island Roots was later awarded the title.)

In Game 3, A Mother’s Prayer led 7-6 after Strand-Nicolaisen blasted an overpass against her old teammates.

Then UHH hit a ball that looked long, right beyond the end line. But it was flagged in, and the scoreboard showed a 7-7 tie.

However, first referee Gail Rosehill caught the error, the score was changed to 8-6, and a phantom point was avoided.

Ashton hammered a kill for a 14-12 lead, and a hitting error on A Mother’s Prayer closed the match.


Krieger talked about the Vulcans becoming a bigger part of the volleyball community, especially at the Haili, which is sort of a reunion for old friends.

“First of all, we’re excited to be part of the Haili tournament, the tradition, and the volleyball community,” he said. “Instead of letting the kids go away for spring break, we made a commitment and sacrifice to play some great teams at home.”

  1. Russell G April 1, 2018 12:09 pm

    How does the UH Hilo team have no local players?

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