KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii >> The dominoes fell at Kealakehe, which could turn into a blessing for Makua Lani Christian Academy.
The Lions stunned the BIIF in the spring, going unbeaten to capture their first league boys volleyball championship. Coach Ryenn Sotelo’s first season was an eye-opener for the school with less than 300 students.
Makua Lani (13-5 overall) has a different atmosphere, Sotelo said.
“Makua Lani feels like family,” he said.
Their eight-man roster was sparked by sophomore setter Kaipono Benson, the BIIF Division II player of the year, and Makua Lani MVP Kahoku Benson, a junior outside hitter.
“They love volleyball, those two, so they’re going to do whatever they need to do,” Sotelo said of the brothers.
Not enough players to scrimmage. Practice on an outside court. Parents driving players across the Big Island to matches. Makua Lani found a way to succeed despite the obstacles. They also did it with work ethic and goals. Kahoku Benson had a prediction before the season.
“He sat by me and said, ‘I think we’re going to win our division, go to states and do well in BIIFs.’ We did everything he said, plus we won BIIF. We may have lost to Division I schools, but they’re not in our division and we went to four sets with them,” Sotelo said.
The boost from assistant coaches Roddy Yomes, who previously led Kealakehe to BIIF titles, and former Hawaii player — and two-time national champion — Missy Yomes, was major. They are Sotelo’s uncle and aunt.
The offseason has brought concerns to Sotelo, however. At least two players are considering leaving due to financial issues. Another key player is considering transferring to play baseball, which is also in the spring season. Sotelo wants to keep his core intact, while new players arrive, including his son, Kaleb, who will be a freshman setter.
But the biggest change might be on its way. Recently, Kealakehe released BIIF coach of the year Kahinu Lee, the former Konawaena and Hawaii player. Sotelo has since asked Lee to join his staff.
“I think it’s 90-10. We talk a lot,” Sotelo said of the chances of landing Lee. “It’s a raw deal he got. That’s the thing I dislike about coaching, the politics at some schools. We’re fortunate that we have very good parents at Makua Lani. However that all plays out, that’s above me, but Kahinu is volleyball, through and through. If I was growing up in this era, I would be blessed to play for him.”
If his plan comes to fruition, Sotelo will eventually have the longtime coach, Lee, become head coach and Sotelo will be an assistant.
“It’s all about doing what’s best for the team,” he said.
Survival is a mode Makua Lani knows well. So is success — in soccer, and now volleyball. The team’s fourth-place finish at the D-II state tourney is the highest in a team sport.
Sotelo is a Konawaena graduate, but also a huge proponent of Makua Lani’s educational benefits. His daughter graduated from the school. The 2019 season is still fresh in Sotelo’s mind. Most of his players were already off island in early summer, including three visiting Japan for a school-based trip.
“They had to become fluent in Japanese language to be eligible for the trip,” Sotelo said.
He summed up each of the eight Lions, most of whom also play soccer.
Coach Sotelo on the 2019 Makua Lani roster (numerical order).
Jeremiah Hernandez — “He’s a sophomore and he’s my libero. He’s spunky. He could be a setter. Jeremiah likes volleyball. If he sticks with it, he could be a setter or libero. In college, where would he play? He could play either. He’s passionate about what he does. He’s smart. He could go far. He has soft hands and he could be a setter.”
TJ Heath — “TJ Is awesome. His play and his attitude kind of reminds me of myself growing up in high school. TJ can jump. He’s our opposite, but sometimes I put him on strong side. He’s got skills to do whatever he wants. It’s a matter of him applying himself. He’s a sophomore.”
Laukoa Fruean — “Laukoa’s the comedian of the group. He brings excitement. He has fun. In our comeback win over HPA, he brought us back with his serving. We were down something like 11-4 (in the final set). He served us all the way to 13.”
Fruean will be a senior.
Kahoku Benson — “Hoku was their leader. He always kept them together. He’s going to be great at whatever he wants to do. He will be amazing. He’s one of the group in Japan right now. He plans on becoming a doctor.”
Timani Moniati — “It took him a minute. He was shy. He was quiet. He was a freshman. Then he came out of his shell. I think he will develop when he starts working out. His dad is about 6-2, 6-3.”
Kaipono Benson — “His potential is as far as he wants to go. He’s a very self-driven volleyball player. When practice was done, he would go home and practice setting in the back yard, and who better to set than his brother (Kahoku). He wants to go places and he has the ability to go places. I would keep an eye on those two. If they end up coming back to Makua Lani, that would be great.”
Elliot Veisauyadra — “His heart is with baseball, so he might transfer. He’s got a lot of talent in his swing. Once he was able to control that, he was good.”
Tristan Charles — “He was our only senior, our middle blocker (6-2). He’s really smart. He’s going to BYU-Hawaii on Oahu.”
The newcomers would include Kaleb Sotelo. A transfer from Hawaii Prep who sat out volleyball last season will also suit up.
Makua Lani isn’t a private school with a surplus of financial aid for non-athletes and athletes. Sotelo said there are scholarships.
“There’s strong hope that next season’s team will be as good as this season. It’s having great players who won BIIF being able to work with players who are learning. You’ve got to be able to mesh the two,” Sotelo said. “There’s a lot of positive, and there’s a lot of hope. If you want your child to get a great education, to go to college and do something, Makua Lani is the school to go to. And while they’re there, they can play volleyball.”