Kealakehe nearly did the impossible, rebounding from a first set 24-20 deficit to sweep Waiakea on Friday at the Warriors Gym, completing two important things.
First off, comebacks from that deep of a hole rarely happen because any mistake and the other team wins. The match between the to BIIF Division I teams with 9-1 records clearly established the Waveriders as the second-best team.
That’s not a bad distinction to have because Kamehameha is seen as the heavy favorite to win its first BIIF title since 2014. This season’s edition is likely the most talented of all the teams since that time.
The visiting Waveriders also clearly establishing themselves as mentally tough enough in the 26-24, 25-21, 25-23 win over the Warriors, despite stepping on self-inflicted thorns.
Kealakehe (10-1) had a good amount of firepower with 46 kills but committed way too many unforced errors with 34. That’s an average of 11 giveaway points per set to Waiakea. That’s a tough way to win when you’re fighting two opponents, the opposition and yourself.
There are also two reasons why this season’s edition is better than the squad from a year ago. Senior middle blocker Anastasia Tuifua looks to be playing the best ball of her career and hitting smarter than ever. She smashed 20 kills, including 10 in Game 3.
“She’s worked hard to hit to different spots on the court,” Kealakehe coach Jaymie Nield said. “It’s not just swinging hard. She’s moving the ball around the court and that really helps.”
Tuifua is also athletic, quick and strong. She can jump high enough and move fast enough to fire a powerful shot before the block or back row defender can get to her attacks.
The Waveriders also have better ball-control, passing balls off attacks with more precision. That’s due to having so many liberos on the court. Last year’s libero Ki’i Takata is now an outside hitter. Madelyn Blanford, who started at libero, has moved to hitter. Pualani Louis is now the libero.
“It was energy packed. Both teams fought well and it was close,” Tuifua said. “It definitely showed our strength mentally (coming back from 24-20). We focused on one point, one play at a time. When the passes were on and the sets were on, that’s how I got my kills.”
Aulike Kaiawe and Kailee Kahawii function as setter/hitters, so there’s always an extra set of good ball-handling hands in the rotation.
Kaiawe finished with nine kills, Kahawii had seven kills, while Takata and Liberty Tuifua added three kills each.
Meanwhile, Waiakea passed fine on serve-receive but struggled to send accurate passes to setter Grace Nakoa-Oness.
Kailey Doll had five kills while Bethany Honma, Mackenzie Narvaez, and Michelle Vintero had four kills each for the Warriors, who kept the scores close but couldn’t find enough firepower.
The Warriors finished with 21 kills and 24 unforced errors. It’s never a good thing and really tough to win when giveaway points outnumber kills.
Game 1 was a wild roller-coaster. Kealakehe was headed for a set win with a 20-14 lead. But Waiakea scored 10 straight points, including seven on unforced errors. Jaycie Nishimura then served an ace for a 24-20 lead.
Then it was Waiakea’s turn to wobble. The Warriors had a hitting error, Louis dropped two aces, Kealakehe had a block and it was tied at 24-24. Waiakea had another hitting error, and Tuifua knocked down set point.
Game 2 was tied at 20-20 before the Waveriders pulled away. Louis served an ace to close the set.
Tuifua took over the third set. At one point, she drilled five of her team’s seven points for a 19-13 lead. She later slammed match point to send the Waveriders home happy on their two-hour bus drive back.
Kealakehe, which already swept Hilo, will take on either the Vikings or Waiakea in the BIIF semifinals for an HHSAA tournament berth. The Warriors and Vikings, who are both 9-2, play Monday, with the loser likely getting Kamehameha in the semifinals.
The Waveriders last went to states in 2006. There’s no guarantee they’ll beat either team again.
“We know in the BIIF playoffs they’ll come back harder and hungrier,” Nield said. “We’re confident going in it.”