Big Blue Bite: LJA’s first state crown

Le Jardin became a champion for the first time on Saturday night. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser
Le Jardin became a champion for the first time on Saturday night. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser

The pendulum swung from one great team to the other, back and forth.

In the end, the momentum belonged to tiny Le Jardin, which captured its first state championship girls volleyball — or any sport — with a frantic, five-set thriller win over four-time defending champion Hawaii Baptist in the New City Nissan/HHSAA State Championships on Saturday.

Timing, as well as talent, meant a lot. The Bulldogs, with all-tournament most outstanding player Nina Krupa at setter, and all-tourney selections Kassidy Naone, Arianna Lunow-Luke and Julia Fisher, rose to the top despite the huge obstacle in their way. HBA had beaten LJA in the past two ILH title matches, and last year’s state-tourney final.

“We just had a lot of ups and downs, a few injuries, it fluctuated our performance. During the state tourney, we started playing cohesively as a team. We began playing for each other,” Krupa said. “I think it was the first time we didn’t feel the need to look to the bench. We just looked at each other in the eyes and we knew everything was going to be great. We weren’t frazzled.”

Like LJA, however, HBA suited up a young squad. The Eagles have two seniors in all; the Bulldogs have three, all starters, including Naone and Krupa. Second-year head coach Lee Lamb felt cautious not just in the final, but in the semifinal round against another ILH rival, third-place finisher Damien.
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“I sensed more fatigue (Friday) night. I was worried last night. Damien had got some momentum and we were making mental errors, I was attributing that to fatigue, looking at the body language. It looked like the gas was running out a little bit. Fisher was tired. I just asked them to dig deep and finish it, that way we didn’t have to go five. Push a little harder in the short term, it’ll save in the long term,” he said. “They were able to do that, and today, they looked OK. I was OK with where they were.”

Fisher attended HBA until eighth grade before matriculating to a school on her side of the island. Her older brothers starred at HBA.

“But this is where I have my second family,” she said of the Bulldogs. “Coach Lee, everything he says, I have complete trust.”

What made for a magnificent battle for fans to watch was, in part, the result of two teams completely knowledgeable of each other. But for HBA and LJA, changing of the guard isn’t quite the fit description. Not with both teams so young.

“We have a few teams (in the ILH). I felt like La Pietra played some close matches towards the end, they have a couple of really good players there. Damien has given us good matches, they’ve given us fits, took one from us earlier in the year. They always play people tough. They’re really streaky,” Lamb said. “I think it’s going to be a three-way, four-way battle.”

Until then, the Bulldogs can celebrate on their lush Windward campus perched on the Koolaus. Krupa, who began her playing career as an LJA seventh-grader, brought an unmistakeable joy for the game and her teammates.

“She’s like the heart and soul of the team. She chases everything down. She’s one of the few kids who’s smiling all the time. She just absolutely loves playing the game,” Lamb said. “The other kids follow. We had Fisher be the captain the past two years. We had the seniors be captains, but really, Nina’s the go-getter. She’s not the most vocal; Fisher takes care of that, but she’s a workhorse, man.

Fisher, just a junior, was a tough, confident Bulldog.

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“Fisher. She’s a leader. She’s a vocal leader. She has a lot of confidence in herself,” Lamb said. “One of the things I really appreciate about her, (Friday) night, I asked her to dig deep and go get it done. I put it squarely on her in that game against Damien. She came in and had a great stretch, had five, six kills down the stretch to close out that match. It’s nice to know that I could ask her to go do that and she responded.

Naone, a blend of power and finesse from any point on the floor, and Krupa will be among the graduates in June.

“One of the greatest kids. Nice, nice kid. We rely on her heavily. I was very thankful that we were able to have more attackers, to take the pressure off her, allow her to play more freely,” Lamb said. “Just her presence. She gets up, people have to key on her. It’s nice when there’s two blockers having to key on her. It opens up other things for you. Plus, she’s a great kid. Kids respond to her.”

Naone relishes the legacy of being part — a major part — of Le Jardin’s first state championship team.

“After this, we’re already preparing for next year,” she said. “We know they’re still going to be strong and the team will continue on. We’re happy and excited that we’re able to leave something behind for the school, to build a bigger program for the future.”

The future won’t be all fun and games. The endurance Le Jardin showed in that decisive fifth set is all about training. Commitment.

“We have this thing called metabolics that we do,” Fisher said. “It sucks at the time, but it paid off. It’s like sprinting and superwomans. You lay on the ground and your thighs can’t touch the ground.”

The pendulum brought fun and joy, and also brought heartbreak and resolve. When LJA lost at Damien during the ILH season, it was a tough battle against a tremendous team that got extra help from its football team cheering on that night. When perennial powerhouse HBA visited Le Jardin a week later, word got around campus that the Bulldogs could use all the vocal and physical support they could get.

So, the boys water polo team, which had shown up to cheer on their slammers last year, did it again this time. They walked in after one set, clad in practice uniforms — speedos and nothing else but slippers — to help their team outlast HBA for a momentous victory.

They were there again on state championship night, dressed more fully, of course, their cheers echoing all the way to the other side of the Pali. Le Jardin, finally a state champion.

Epilogue 11/3: Le Jardin finished at No. 6 in the final Star-Advertiser Girls Volleyball Top 10 rankings, finishing only behind ‘Iolani, Kamehameha, Kahuku, Punahou and King Kekaulike. HBA finished at No. 8, sandwiched between No. 7 Maryknoll and No. 9 Kapolei. LJA and HBA are the only two D-II programs in the final Top 10.

Le Jardin is the 2016 HHSAA Girls Volleyball State Champion.
Le Jardin is the 2016 HHSAA Girls Volleyball State Champion.

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