Pilipaa the powerful: High school club first to topple older foes for Haili AA gold

  • RICK OGATA photo
    Kamehameha and Stanford alum Evan Enriques helped Unko’z Fishing defeat Big Island Boys 25-23, 25-19 for the men's AA championship at the Haili Volleyball tournament.
  • RICK OGATA photo
    Nani Spaar pounded a match-high 12 kills Saturday for Pilipaa, which became the first high school team to win the women's AA title at the 62nd annual Haili Volleyball tournament.
  • RICK OGATA photo
    Tiani Bello skies to spike a ball Saturday for Pilipaa, which became the first high school team to win the women's AA title at the 62nd annual Haili Volleyball tournament.

History was made at the 62nd annual Haili Volleyball Tournament behind the right arm of Nani Spaar and the rest of her precocious Pilipaa teammates, who refused to bend against the will of their opponent, Legacy, older but blessed with collegiate experience.

Spaar knocked down a match-high 12 kills and looked like the best player on the court as Pilipaa beat Legacy 25-20, 25-19 to capture the women’s AA title, the first time a high school team has accomplished the feat in more than six decades.

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For the men, Unko’z Fishing defeated Big Island Boys 25-23, 25-19 for the AA championship.

Legacy was stacked with former UH Rainbow Wahine players (Ginger Long, Natasha Burns) and UHH Vulcans (Mina Grant, Sienna Davis, and Taira Kaawaloa). Kaawaloa, out of University High on Oahu, was signed to the 2018 class. She was a two-time all-conference pick at Irvine Valley College.

It looked like history turned back to 2015 when Pilipaa became the first group of high schoolers to reach the AA final but fell to Honolulu’s HI Intensity, another team loaded with college talent. That Pilipaa team was led by Zoe Leonard and Kaiulani Ahuna, a pair of Kamehameha seniors.

Leonard was on the current Pilipaa coaching staff along with her dad Chris Leonard, the head coach, and assistant Sean Spaar, father of Nani, who was a consistent force with six kills in each set.

“It was pretty awesome,” Zoe said. “They played with fire and passion.”

Most of the Pilipaa club players are from Kamehameha, including Spaar, Tiani Bello, Kaysha Kahai-Enos, Loke Kuamoo, Kanani Chan, and Kaili Pila. The other players are Mia Takai, Aaliyah Asuncion, and Laurie McGrath, from Hilo, and Aulike Kaiawe and Keala Wright from Kealakehe. Wright didn’t play due to injury.

A night earlier in the semifinals, Pilipaa defeated UHH in three sets.

It’s been a magical run for the Pilipaa 18s team, which earlier won the Moku O Hawaii Keawe region title and will head to the USA Volleyball junior national championships, slated for April in Dallas. The latest feat is one for the ages.

“It’s special for sure,” Chris Leonard said. “We’ve really been pushing and challenging them to get up to the next level. In the last couple of days, they grew up to their potential. All of our girls played really well.

“We challenged them to be aggressive. They had intensity, worked hard and played together. That’s a big part of the success.”

Kaawaloa ripped seven kills, Amnesty Dawson had five, and Davis and Long each added four for Legacy, which just couldn’t find a consistent rhythm.

Most of the time, the older teams follow a certain blueprint. They don’t beat themselves and play with better ball-control — digging better and making clean sets. That’s the benefit of playing college ball, taking far more reps than the young pups and playing against elite competition.

It looked that way early with the first rotation as Pilipaa had a tough time adjusting to Burns’ 6-foot-5 height in the front row. Legacy shot out to a 7-1 lead. That’s about the time when the old-timers turn into lions and swallow their prey.

However, Pilipaa was hungry and grabbed Legacy’s dinner and changed the tempo of the match. The tipping point quickly followed.

Pilipaa got a block, Aulike Kaiawe served an ace, and Legacy had a hitting error. Pilipaa was down 7-4 but had a boost of confidence and momentum.

Spaar shot balls through seams, hit around blocks and relied on a tool shot to bounce fastballs off defenders. She was an unstoppable terror down the stretch. She had consecutive kills for a 22-18 lead.

After Legacy scored, Spaar got a sideout for a 23-19 lead and the ball to serve. She dropped an ace that caught the back line, and Legacy hit into the net on set point.

In Game 2, Kaawaloa had back-to-back kills for a 13-12 lead, but, with Spaar serving, Pilipaa reeled off six straight points for an 18-13 cushion.

Later, Legacy turned error-prone with three straight unforced errors, a serving miscue, and two hitting errors in a row. Pilipaa didn’t need to touch the ball and held a 22-16 lead.

Spaar slammed home a kills for a 24-19 lead, and Pilipaa closed the match with a block.

Pilipaa played with a veteran’s poise with just 14 unforced errors. Legacy made too many with 21 giveaway points. Pilipaa had more aces, 5-2, and often made life miserable for the Legacy setters with tough serves.

Add it all up and Pilipaa’s historic unprecedented feat goes down as the biggest in history.

All liberos

Unko’z Fishing is composed of players from Guy Enriques club team from back in the day. His son, Evan Enriques, was joined by his dad, and Kainoa Quindica, Mamone Namahoe, Skylan Engelman, Kaehu Kaaa, and Larry Tuileta, the former Rainbow Warrior.

Chad and Peter Pua sparked the Big Island Boys, who also had former UH players Nainoa Frank and Vernon Podlewski.

“It’s just a bunch of old club teammates,” Evan Enriques said. “It’s something we did at the last minute. Unko’z Fishing is my fishing brand. I started it a year ago.”

Emmett Enriques, a CSUN senior, is home for spring break but decided to take it easy. Avery Enriques (Grand Canyon) and Addison Enriques (Concordia) are both sophomores and stayed on the mainland.

It was the first Haili AA title for Evan Enriques, who had high praise for Big Island Boys, who also placed second in 2017.

“They had a really good team,” he said. “They brought in a couple of guys from the mainland and from UH.

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“We all play libero, me, Tui, Mamane, Sky, my dad. We just played defense. That was the main thing. We were able to keep the ball up. That was the joke on the team. That we were all liberos.

“It’s the first time I played in the open. It feels good to play with all your guys and rekindle that friendship. The best part is the team is all my club teammates, and it was fun to be with all your friends.”

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