KEAAU – Christian Liberty’s boys volleyball team has hosted one playoff game – sort of – and that came when players in the class of 2016 matured to the point that they were able to hold off Honokaa in a play-in match three years ago before hitting the road.
The Canefire would like to welcome an opponent to Old Mill Fieldhouse for a real playoff game this season by earning a top-four seed, but they would just as soon do it without all the growing pains.
With middle hitters Josh Rushton and Jerry Becker in tow, that’s definitely possible.
Rushton, a sophomore, pounded 18 kills Saturday and Becker, a freshman, added nine as Christian Liberty eased past the Dragons 25-19, 25-14, 25-21 in a BIIF Division II match that took just a more than an hour.
“I’ve got those guys for two more years after this one,” coach Gary Oertel said. “It’s exciting.”
Not that Oertel needs to look too far ahead.
It may sound like a familiar theme, but it’s true: D-II looks wide-open this season.
The Canefire (4-3) made quick work of the Dragons less than 18 hours after edging Pahoa in five sets behind Rushton’s 30 kills, and they stand in second place behind upstart Makua Lani.
“He takes hits wherever he can get them, but we try to spread it around, because it makes him more effective,” Oertel said. “But he can hit from anywhere. He’s putting up big numbers.”
Against the Dragons (0-5), the 5-foot-10 Rushton hit .316 and led the way with 16 digs.
The Canefire made their most hitting errors in the first set and found themselves trailing 15-14 before Rushton started attacking from all angles, putting down four kills, including on set point.
“They batted through,” Oertel said. “We committed a lot of errors in that first set, a lot.
“For them to come back and stay on top of it, just battle through it, we finished well.”
Jason Tagabi is in his first season back with the Dragons after a previous stint as coach that ended in 2004.
He was greeted by a inexperienced roster that lacks a returning starter or a club player to build around, and the fact that Honokaa Armory still isn’t available for practices, let alone matches, doesn’t help either, he said.
“Lots of communication (issues) and getting rid of errors,” Tagabi said. “If we can eliminate the errors, we can start getting better.”
Honokaa was coming off of a five-set loss to Konawaena in which Tagabi saw encouraging signs.
“We’ve been improving every game, I see the progress, and then today was a step back,” he said.
Optimally, the Dragons will set balls for senior Keison Falk on the outside, but their best spurt in the third set came with Falk at the service line and junior Elijah Aguilar taking swings. Aguilar notched five kills, and Falk collected three aces.
Honokaa trailed 16-15 in Game 3, but two hitting errors were sandwiched around two Rushton kills, and the Canefire were on their way.
Seniors Terrcin Allen and Jhoshua Orozco-Garcia and sophomore Caleb Watkins helped give Christian Liberty balance with three kills apiece. Allen finished with 11 digs, but he hits well enough that Oertel doesn’t play him at libero. Junior Chase Cobile compiled 28 assists. Allen dug 34 balls Friday night against the Daggers.
“He’s great defender,” Oertel said.
There are 18 boys in grades 9-12 at Christian Liberty, and 10 of them are on the volleyball team. The Canefire don’t have club players, but they do have the next best thing. Rushton and Becker each gained seasoning at the intermediate level before getting to high school. The 5-9 Becker’s best offensive matches this season came in wins against Kohala (15 kills) and Konawaena (17).
With losses to Division I teams Kealakehe and Waiakea in which Oertel felt his team was competitive, Christian Liberty is 4-1 against D-II foes, the only setback coming when the Canefire ran into a buzz saw of sorts against Makua Lani. Two-time defending champion Hawaii Prep (1-1) is a somewhat of an unknown this season because HPA plays the bulk of its matches after spring break, but the Lions already bumped off Ka Makani in Waimea in a five-setter March 7.
In the season-opener Feb. 27, Makua Lani handled Christian Liberty in three sets in Keaau.
“They were a big surprise,” Oertel said. “They were very good, a lot offense. They had hitters at every position. Usually, you can find a spot on a team you can pick on, but they had nobody to pick on.
“We’d love to play them again, we just weren’t ready.”
Beyond hosting a playoff match, the Canefire would love to earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs, but that might require them to beat Hawaii Prep. The teams are scheduled to meet April 15 in what will be Christian Liberty’s senior day.
By then, Tagabi hopes Honokaa has gotten off the schneid. The Dragons are one of three winless teams in D-II along with Ka’u and Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino.
He’s glad the three-tiered bracket system has been scrapped, allowing his team to face high-caliber competition. During his first go-around as coach, there was only one classification.
“Back in my day, we were going up against Waiakea. That’s how it should be, right?” he said. “The goal is to peak in the next two to three weeks so we can get to the playoffs and maybe get something accomplished.”