KEAAU – If one was only focused on Kamehameha’s boisterous bench, they might have imagined the volleyball stakes were higher.
Warriors freshman Kahilikuikala Paleka soared to put down a kill Thursday night against Hawaii Prep, prompting teammate Chase Bridges-Hunter to jump even higher out of his socially distanced courtside seat to applaud.
“He’s improving, and I remember being a freshman, too, and having those hits and having the whole bench go nuts,” Bridges-Hunter said. “Being able to do that in the game is a huge accomplishment.”
Of course, if the stakes were higher – say a BIIF championship match, which is usually the least of Kamehameha’s goals – Bridges-Hunter likely wouldn’t have been on the bench for the third set.
“This is all we have, we’re just trying to be out here and make the best of it, and we’re all still passionate about the sport,” said senior Chyston Loa, who pointed to a video camera on the far side of the court at Koaia Gym. “Our crowd is watching live. They’re watching a live stream, so we’re the crowd, I guess.”
When Bridges-Hunter wasn’t cheering, he was hitting rockets from the right side or sending blistering serves at Ka Makani. When Loa wasn’t leading chants, he was blocking at the net. Loa said he’s 6-foot-4 1/2, though he admitted Bridges-Hunter was a good 6-5.
“He’s maybe 6-6 with his Afro,” Loa joked.
With Blaine Baclig smoking crisp kills on the left side, Kamehameha looked in midseason form and ready to win another BIIF Division I title and challenge Punahou at the HHSAA tournament – well, it’s nice to think about anyway.
“I miss it a lot,” Bridges-Hunter said of a title chase. “It was nice to actually play a team that we had competition with, but just being back in the gym and in front of people was amazing.”
Overcoming what Loa called “hard rubs” from Kama Liu-led HPA (2-1) in the third set, Kamehameha won 25-12, 25-14, 26-24 to improve to 3-0 during this abbreviated BIIF season.
This wasn’t exactly what Kamehameha’s core group had in mind two years ago when as sophomores they helped the Warriors regain the BIIF crown. In the 2019 HHSAA tournament, the Warriors were swept by Punahou in the quarterfinals, but Bridges-Hunter, Loa, Baclig and Co. had every right to think they’d get two more shots at the eight-time state champion Buffanblu.
Instead, because of the pandemic, that was all she wrote as far as championships go.
“The last two years, we expected big things,” coach Sam Thomas said. “My goal was no less than top three in the state last year, and in the championship match this year.”
Kamehameha got to the title match four times from 2012-17, and Loa certainly didn’t sound like be would have bet against his team’s chances, especially last year, when outside hitter Kamau Maka’ike was still around.
“If it was normal year, it would have been scary to see the full team’s potential before it got called off,” he said. “It was crazy what we had starting and coming off the bench.”
Playing and developing alongside Loa since they were freshmen, Bridges-Hunter said this could have been an “action year” for the Warriors. However, he in no way feels cursed the team was never able to reach its full potential.
In fact, quite the opposite.
“I’m just grateful to be here,” said Bridges-Hunter, who signed to play at Canada’s Windsor University. “A lot of my friends weren’t able to be looked at (by colleges). The fact that I have a D-I school in another country, majoring (aeronautics) in what I want, that’s somethings that makes me feel very blessed.”
For Loa, the prospect of finding a college volleyball home amid a shutdown that limited the game film he could generate to entice recruiters was, at first, daunting.
“I kind of panicked,” he said, “got all my clips together to see what I had and in my head I said, “‘This is not enough.”’
But it was.
Loa committed to Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., and plans to study fire science. If a transfer opportunity arises in two years, he could explore it. If not he can look for work as a firefighter.
Baclig, who wants to be a pilot, has been offered a spot at Baldwin-Wallace, where he could reunite with Maka’ike, and he’s also received interest from a handfuls of other NCAA Division III schools.
“It’s crazy how much talent we have coming through the program each year and how we get coaches to use our talent to do something good, rather than messing around and goofing off with it,” Loa said.
Senior outside hitters Liu, KJ Walker and Ka Makani did enough to give Kamehameha a challenge, and, more importantly, they won a seal of approval from coach Sharon Peterson.
During a normal season, HPA could have used to experience to gear up for the BIIF Division II tournament.
“This is the first time we played a team like this, and I think we started to relax better and play more together,” she said. “I thought for the most part they had spirit.”
A pair of female players, juniors Malia Camero, a setter, and Ava Koepper, a setter and libero, received regular playing time. Camero finished with a kill and a subsequent fist pump
The 2020 girls volleyball season was canceled, but if the 2021 season is a go next school year, playing against Kamehameha’s raw power should prove beneficial.
“I’m thrilled they’re playing,” said Peterson, also HPA’s girls coach. “Malia was the first one to ask if she could come out.
“I think this was one Malia best efforts. Ava served and kind of got the team going again in the second set.”
The veteran coach and NAIA Hall of Famer said she took a “see-if-I-still-want-do-it” approach toward coaching during the pandemic.
So far, so good.
“It’s a fun group to work with,” she said. “They are very easy to coach.”