PAHOA — It’s been a remarkable building process on the volleyball court for Makua Lani, which didn’t have a team two years ago.
Last year, the Lions had their debut BIIF season and finished last with a 2-11 record in the Blue division, the lowest of the league’s three tiers.
This season, they’ve qualified for the state tournament and also have a shot at their first BIIF Division II championship and an unbelievable chance to produce a worst-to-first achievement.
Makua Lani defeated Pahoa 25-16, 25-19, 25-18 on Friday at the old Daggers gym to clinch the BIIF regular-season title, which includes the league’s first berth to states.
The Lions (9-4) also secured a first-round bye to the six-team BIIF D-II playoffs. They’ll play in the semifinals on April 24 at the Vikings gym.
The Daggers (5-8) visit Konawaena (6-7) in the first round at 6 p.m. on Monday at Ellison Onizuka gym in Kealakekua.
Makua Lani has lost to the Division I powers (Hilo, Kamehameha, Kealakehe, and Waiakea) but beat the two perennial Division II title contenders Hawaii Prep in five and swept Konawaena.
The Lions are basically learning on the job. They’re led by the Benson brothers, 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter Kahoku and 6-0 sophomore setter Kaipono. Kahoku is the main source of firepower and finished with a match-high 15 kills, and Kaipono is the team’s best server and piled up four aces and one service error, a stellar ratio, with his jump serve.
Laukoa Fruean, a junior hitter, added eight kills, and sophomore middle Elliott Veisauyadra had seven kills, and freshman hitter TJ Heath, a 5-6 ball of energy, chipped in four kills.
Pahoa struggled to find consistency, made too many unforced errors, but kept swinging away on senior night, which was highlighted by the team’s parents wearing pink shirts.
Keanu Muck led the way with four kills, Malaria Kuahiwinui had three kills, and Jayden Broad-Melander had a pair of kills. All are sophomores and nice building blocks.
The Benson brothers were not surprised by the team’s success. It was one of the Makua Lani’s goals, and most of the players prepared by playing beach volleyball during the offseason.
“Playing sand volleyball helped us all with our ball-handling and volleyball IQ,” Kahoku said.
The Lions pass well in serve-receive and transition attacks, have a mobile block and serve tough. They only have one senior in Tristan Charles. Their only deficiency is depth. They sport an eight-player roster.
Makua Lani doesn’t look or play like a bunch of greenhorns.
“After last season, the players took a lot of time and effort to improve their skills,” coach Ryenn Sotelo said. “They have heart, and we’re the Makua Lani Lions. We’ll fight or claw back. People should come see us play if you haven’t seen us.
“Kahoku is smart. His volleyball IQ is above average. Kaipono is a hitter. He wasn’t a setter. But he stepped up and said, ‘I’ll be the setter.’ He’s self-taught and excellent.”
The brothers are captains, and the other captain is Jeremiah Hernandez, a sophomore libero.
“He hustles for every ball,” Sotelo said. “He’s energetic.”
Fruean and Veisauyadra are solid hitters, who both know how to attack seams, and Heath has good hops for a little giant.
“Laukoa loves the sport,” Sotelo said. “For Elliot the sky is the limit for him in volleyball. TJ is a smaller player, but he can jump. He’s got a great roll shot and can hit angle.”
In Game 1, Kaipono blasted a pair of top-spin sinkers for aces, and Makua Lani bolted to a 6-1 lead. He later got a dump shot on set point.
Kahoku slammed a kill for a 24-19 lead, and Kaipono ripped an ace to close the second set.
In the third set, Makua Lani put up five blocks, and Pahoa had five service errors, including on match point.
The Lions accomplished one goal but a bigger one is out there. A BIIF title would be something for a school that is best known for its soccer programs. The last BIIF championship was in 2007 by the boys soccer team.
“It would mean a lot for a second-year team,” Kaipono said. “It would be special.”
Kahoku also slammed home what a BIIF crown would mean.
“It would make history for our school,” he said.
On Thursday, Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino went on the road and beat Honokaa 18-25, 25-18, 25-23, 19-25, 16-14 for its first BIIF victory.
The school, in its sixth season, took up BIIF volleyball in 2014.