KEAAU – Ka’u played in Kamehameha’s Labor Day volleyball tournament and wasn’t sharp with its first two touches: serving and serve-receive passing.
Coach Josh Ortega made those two things a point of emphasis in practice, and the Trojans put their sharpened skills to good use on Wednesday at Christian Liberty’s Old Mill Field House.
The Trojans swept the Canefire 25-21, 25-21, 25-23 in a BIIF Division II showdown to sort of establish an early pecking order.
Earlier, Ka’u (2-1) swept defending BIIF champion Kohala, which won its first league title last season. The Trojans’ loss was to Hilo, the defending BIIF Division I champ.
This season, more than any other in recent memory, may be extremely encouraging to darkhorse teams like Christian Liberty, which has never reached the HHSAA championships, and Ka’u, which last won a BIIF title in 2012.
Kohala, Hawaii Prep, and Konawaena have represented the BIIF at states the last two years, but the first two suffered huge losses to graduation.
The defending BIIF champion Cowgirls lost all their starters, Ka Makani graduated its best hitter, but the Wildcats likely remain the title favorite with the return of two All-BIIF players in senior Malie Grace and sophomore Kailee Llanes-Kelekolio.
Last season, Ka’u defeated Makua Lani in the BIIF tournament first round and lost to Kohala in the semifinals and to HPA in the third-place match.
HPA beat CLA in three sets in the first round last year. But the Canefire (3-1) return a strong nucleus with Brooke Perreira, a junior hitter, senior setter Rhylee Corpuz and sophomore hitter Audrey Akina-Makaneole.
Perhaps most impressive about the Trojans, besides their first touches, was their abundance of talented youth, especially freshman Chelsea Velez, who pounded a match-high 13 kills.
Freshman outside hitter Lehiwa Freitas-Moses added five kills, freshman middle blocker Kyia Hashimoto had three kills, and freshman setter Tehani-Mae Espejo-Navarro did a nice job putting up clean sets.
Juniors Tiare Wong Yuen and Chandra Silva-Kamei are the other starters. The only seniors are Valany Gonsalves and Shailani Vierra.
“We’re really young,” Ortega said. “Most of the freshman played club ball for Miloli’i Ka’u.”
Most years, Ortega is a clay builder, taking players with no experience and trying to mold them into volleyball players.
He recalled the last time he had experienced players, who played club ball, was in 2012 when he was a club coach. That team was led by Marley Strand-Nicolaisen, who later played at UHH, and won the school’s first BIIF title that year.
“We don’t have to start from scratch and teach things like footwork,” Ortega said. “We can have a higher level of expectations.”
Freitas-Moses is an undersized high-jumping hitter, who swings hard. Velez is a savvy shotmaker, who seems to know what shot to hit. Both are solid backrow passers, so the Trojans are always swinging for sideouts and opportunities to make scoring runs.
Ortega noted the best thing about Velez isn’t her hitting ability. It’s something character driven.
“She’s got the biggest heart and is so respectful,” he said.
Perreira was a singular force for the Canefire, who have a new coach in Tiffany Chai, who takes over from Gary Oertel. Perreira finished with eight kills, five aces, and three solo blocks. Akina-Makaneole added three kills.
“Brooke’s an all-around player,” said Grant Chai, who filled in for his wife. “She’s got good court awareness. Volleyball is a team effort and that’s what we try to instill in them.”
The Canefire struggled with their ball-control and had too many unforced errors. That proved costly when games were in the late stages.
CLA led Game 1 18-15 but made five straight unforced errors, and Ka’u closed out it out with Velez getting a block on set point.
In Game 2, it was tied 21-21, but the Trojans scored four consecutive points, the last two on a pair of aces by Wong Yuen.
The third set was a familiar theme. It was tied 20-20, and Ka’u went on another late run.
Chai sees the potential in the Canefire and knows there’s room for improvement. Ka’u cleaned up its ball-control issues, and with enough work CLA can likely do the same.
“We want to be a good serving and steady defensive team,” he said. “We’ve still got work to do, but it’s just the beginning of the season.”
In another match Wednesday, Kamehameha swept Parker 25-6, 25-8, 25-8.