BIIF volleyball: In second season, Lions are kings, ascend to top of Division II

  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Makua Lani's Kaipona Benson is poised to receive a block from Hawaii Prep's Umi Kealoha on Thursday night during the Lions’ four-set win in the BIIF Division II championship game.
  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Makua Lani's Kahoku Benson digs a ball on Thursday night during the Lions’ four-set win in the BIIF Division II championship game.
  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Makua Lani's Elliott Veisauyadra tries to spike a ball over Hawaii Prep's block on Thursday night during the Lions’ four-set win in the BIIF Division II championship game.
  • TIM WRIGHT/Tribune-Herald Makua Lani throws three blockers at Hawaii Prep’s Kala Thurston on Thursday night during the Lions’ four-set win in the BIIF Division II championship game.

Makua Lani played to its strength — balanced firepower — while Hawaii Prep couldn’t overcome its season-long weakness — ball-control — in an unlikely BIIF Division II championship, one team deep in tradition and the other a bunch of hard-working greenhorns.

Thursday night marked exactly two years that the Lions have been playing volleyball, but they pass the ball like old-time veterans while Ka Makani struggled to set its wealth of hitters: sets were often too low or too close to the net.

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Makua Lani capitalized on all the mistakes to topple HPA 20-25, 25-21, 25-20, 25-20 to capture its first BIIF title in only its second season at the Vikings gym.

Makua Lani (10-4) and HPA (9-5) next play in the HHSAA Division II tournament, which runs May 2-4 on Oahu.

The Lions and Ka Makani reached the BIIF championship relying on different styles, suited to the roster’s personnel. In the case of Makua Lani, the West Hawaii private school has to make do with just eight players.

As a second-year program, Makua Lani passes the ball much better than can be expected.

The lineup is well balanced with solid hitters in every rotation, led by Kahoku Benson, who drilled 16 kills and hit .306, in a BIIF semifinal win over Konawaena.

As the two-time defending BIIF champion, HPA has playoff experience, if not the same steady rate of ball-control, on its side, which has height up and down the roster. All of the front-row players are at least 6 feet. Ka Makani outblocked Christian Liberty 7.5-1.0 in the BIIF semifinals.

Against HPA, Benson had 16 kills and hit just .091, but his teammates stepped up. Elliott Veisauyadra added 15 kills and hit .462, and Laukoa Fruean added 12 kills and hit .172 for the Lions, who finished with a .205 hitting clip.

HPA’s two outside hitters, Kala Thurston and Stormer Horton, each finished with 13 kills apiece and hit .229 and .175, respectively. Middle Umi Kealoha added eight kills and hit .263 for HPA, which hit .161 as a team.

Somehow, the Lions outblocked Ka Makani, 9.5-9.0.

But the stats that stood out the most were from Makua Lani sophomore setter Kaipono Benson, who had 55 assists on 130 attempts for a .423 average. He was connecting with his hitters, who swung hard and cranked balls. HPA had 35 assists on 128 attempts; too many times the hitters had patty-cake pushovers.

Makua Lani coach Ryenn Sotelo liked how his players looked comfortable on the court.

“They were relaxed and having fun,” he said. “That’s how we play Makua Lani volleyball. They supported one another and had a good time. It’s amazing how these eight players came together.”

The key moment came in Game 3 tied at 18-18. That’s when the Lions started scoring on a five-point run, and Ka Makani had no answer to stop it.

Fruean had a kill, Veisauyadra added another, Kaipono knocked down an overpass — a highlight of HPA’s ball-control issues — then the Lions had a block and Veisauyadra capped the run with a kill.

Ka Makani scored two straight, and one play later, Tristan Charles, Makua Lani’s only senior, closed Game 3 with a kill.

The momentum, behind all those healthy swings the Lions kept taking, jumped to Makua Lani’s side of the court.

The Lions had a 64 sideout percentage in the fourth set; Ka Makani was at 51 percent and couldn’t break its bad habit of ball-control woes.

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After the championship medal presentation, Kahoku Benson reflected on how far the Lions came on an unlikely journey. Eight volleyball newbies went 2-10 a year ago, and a year later won the BIIF title, a championship few saw coming.

“This marks two years ago when we first starting plays,” he said. “Our focus all week was to give it all we got.”

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