Mother’s Day was a bit more fun for Dandi Holder.
Just hours earlier, her Damien Monarchs stunned Saint Louis at Clarence T.C. Ching Gymnasium to capture the ILH Division II boys volleyball championship. Led by their 6-foot-5 senior, TIno Atonio, Damien outlasted Saint Louis 25-16, 22-25, 25-15 on Saturday night for the crown.
“This is the first title in Damien history for boys volleyball, the first time since the 1980s that they made a title (game) appearance,” Holder said. “So it was a long drought.”
The potential to make history was on the minds of the senior-heavy squad.
“Coach Dandi told us the men’s volleyball team at Damien hasn’t won a (league) title. That matters for us. We started something for Damien boys volleyball,” senior setter Tyrell Bucasas said. “The (Damien) girls earned it and deserve a lot of credit. I want people to come to Damien for volleyball instead of going to other schools.”
The Monarchs had the ingredients that their coach thrives on: athleticism, resilience and a roster filled with overachieving role players. Holder led St. Francis to D-II state crowns in 2018 and ’19. After St. Francis closed its doors, Holder’s first season at Damien was in ’20, but that was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Senior year for their “big hitter,” Angelo Umayam, didn’t quite happen.
The lockdowns and restrictions didn’t stop Damien. In fact, Holder normally doesn’t have an offseason program for her players. Getting them back together in March and working from the ground up was already built into her approach.
“We normally don’t play any preseason tournaments, even at St. Francis. We get in the gym and start putting in work from day one. Rep them, rep them, rep them,” Holder said. “We had no offseason. I would do monthly Zoom meetings with the kids and check with them. The gym opened, I believe, around the beginning of February. It was definitely nice being in the gym and seeing the kids. I was definitely an eye-opener because some of them really grew so much.”
One of them, Atonio, was 6 feet, 3 inches and 182 pounds in 2020. He is now 6-5, 215 pounds.
“I eat a lot of corned beef. I guess you can say that’s my diet. Corned beef and taro. My dad (Tino Atonio Sr.) cooks it,” said Atonio, who hopes to play basketball or volleyball at the next level.”
Holder doesn’t have a favorite title between St. Francis and Damien.
“I think every one is hard. Every championship has its ups and downs. It’s about what does it take to get there, to build them. For me, it’s always been about family, making sure these kids understand that they’re my family,” said Holder, who has four sons, including an eight-month-old. “That’s the hardest part for them to understand, that they’re one of my own, that they trust me enough to want to go to war for me.”
That sense of ohana extends off the court.
“Coach is like a second mom. She’ll take care of us and be on us about us about stuff outside volleyball,” Atonio said. “All of our Instagram posts, what we have to do to get to college. She knows how to get through to us. She likes to sit down and talk to us, Call us to the side individually. She knows that that there’s something going on with each of us. I actually kind of like it. We can go overboard with what we say or put online because we’re young, but it’s a family thing. She wants the best for us. It’s kind of like a guardian angel.”
When Saint Louis swept Damien during the second of their regular-season matches, Holder and her staff made sure to work on the most glaring issue.
“The most important thing is our confidence, making sure these boys are confident within themselves, what they’re fighting for, what they’re playing for,” Holder said. “It’s always the next play, making sure they’re leaving it all out, not having regrets about how they played or what they could’ve done. A lot of mental toughness needed to be brought out.”
It also had plenty to do with the Crusaders.
“It was an eye-opener. We entered the locker room area and one of the boys said, ‘Oh, my gosh, did you see this facility?’ They were deer in headlights. I don’t know if that played into it. Don’t get me wrong,” Holder said. “Saint Louis is an awesome team. They have club hitters and some big hitters. Their starting lineup is 6 feet and above. The setter has quick hands and runs a beautiful offense. They’re well coached.”
Atonio considered the loss to be a blessing.
“I felt like that game really taught us that we’re not the best players. We can’t just come out lackadaisical and win. It pushed us more to get better as a team, not just individually, because in the beginning we weren’t talking and communicating,” he said. So that loss was good for us. I felt like our trust got better after that game. We were tuned into our game plan and we just ame out ready the next game.”
Before the Monarchs arrived at Kalaepohaku on Saturday and ran the stairs during warmups, Holder had a message for them during practice.
“It’s always nice to win, but I told them the day before the game, our last practice, you need to do it for all the people that support you. Your parents play a big role. Your school, administration, the alumni behind Damien. Play for them, for all the people who went out of their way to give you everything you need,” she said. “They have a lot of people that support them. They may not be in the stands, but if they’re going to do anything, they’re going to do it for them and themselves.”
Coach Holder summarized the roles and contributions of her key players.
Tino Atonio, OH, 6-5, Sr.
“He’s our big guy, our main hitter. He’s the type of guy who tells his teammates, ‘Let’s go, let’s do this.’ He builds confidence into his teammates, sets expectations high and makes sure we all come together,” Holder said.
“He’s a solider. He tweaked his ankle a little bit. He said, ‘Coach, I got you, don’t worry.’ In the championship game, third set, he’s coming in on a cross play over the middle and he demolishes a ball over a three-man block. He chewed it and spit it out. They could not stop him. Once he’s on, everybody else is feeding off him,” she said.
Johnny Betham, M, 6-3, Jr.
“Johnny is our quiet guy. He doesn’t say much, but he definitely puts the work in. He wants to be better, and he works hard. He’s very athletic. He really turned it around form last year, blocking some balls, hitting some balls. Volleyball wasn’t his first sport. It’s basketball, but he came out and showed interest (last year).”
Tyrell Bucasas, S, 5-7, Jr.
“That guy, we call him our tank. He’s definitely one that wants the best all the time. He wants to make sure that his guys are getting the best sets possible. He tries his hardest. He’s definitely an original,” Holder said.
“He did have a lot of struggles throughout this year, especially with hitters hitting right over him, trying to get blocks, defense down the line, but with our last game against Saint Louis, his defense got a lot better. He struggled a lot with finding the court as far as ball location, but he really picked it up this year, especially towards our last game.
“That’s why it’s a little more special. We had so many seniors. Tyrell was in it since he first came to Damien. He knew that the program struggled for many, many years, so this is special.”
Donovan Fujii, Libero, Sr., 5-3
“Last year was his first time playing volleyball. He’s definitely one of those, you tell him something and he does it. He executes and he plays with all he’s got every single game. Attitude is awesome. He’s definitely a samurai out there. He’s willing to go to war every time.”
Ryken Ito, M, Sr., 5-10
“Ryken is a little bit smaller than Johnny. He doesn’t take as much space, but he’s a big blocker and has some hops. By the end of the season, he came around and got us a lot of blocks. His hitting came around, he was about to hit around the middle instead of to the middle. In the beginning he would be constantly hitting into the block and we’d say, ‘Ryken you have to turn it.’ By the end of the season, he was turning balls.”
Kendall Ramelb, OH, Sr., 5-7
“He’s another one with hops. In the beginning of the season, during practice, he ended up getting a concussion off a hit from Tino. Another guy stepped in for him, and he ended up coming back and earning his spot back in the last two weeks of the season.”
Kama Maghinay-Santos, OPP, Sr., 5-9
“We needed him especially this year. During COVID, he worked hard the whole time. When he stepped up to the hardwood, he gave us a lot of offense, blocking balls and he’s going against the bigger blockers all of the time. Because he was working out, he was just jumping out of the gym and putting away balls, especially as a lefty and a dual threat,” Holder said.
When the morning after the title victory arrived, so did the extra satisfaction.
“It makes it even more special. Tino texted, ‘Happy Mother’s Day, Coach!’ And everybody texted me ‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ It made me feel special,” Holder said.
Atonio saw his basketball season dissipate because of the cancellation of winter sports. He poured everything into volleyball once spring sports were approved.
“I’ll miss the family bond we have. I came up with the juniors and sophomores that we have on the team. I’ve seen them go from eighth graders, ninth graders all the way to where they are now. I’m kind of like their big brother, just reminiscing on that,” he said. “I got pretty close to our coaches last year, but this year, I finally got to represent Damien, being a Monarch. But I’ll miss the family bond, the everyday talks, the jokes we would crack.”
The Monarchs can’t help but wonder what could have been at a state tournament.
“I think like last year, we had a really good team. We had Angelo and Tino. I think this year’s team we could’ve made a pretty good run. We could’ve shown the state what we’re made over,” said Bucasas, who will suit up for Division III Colby-Sawyer College (N.H.) next season.
“Our team is awfully short, but we just play to our potential and try our best every day. That’s mostly it,” Bucasas said. “We just go in the gym and work.”
Holder played at St. Andrew’s Priory back when she was Dandi Ahuna-Haliniak. Now, she has coached three championship teams in the span of three seasons, not including the cancelled ’20 campagin. The coach praised her staff — assistant coaches Sam Marques and Lokahi Holder, her husband.
“Sam is like my hanai brother. They’re my backbones, there for me all the time. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. Lokahi came on with me when I first took over St. Francis as a head coach. He’s been with me when we placed third, then two (state) titles and this title as well,” she said. “He loves the kids and being out there coaching them. It’s my mom, my grandma, they help me out the most when it comes to the kids at home. They know I have 12 other kids out there at the gym. How I was raised is how I run my program.”
Coach Holder also thanked Athletic Director Eddie Klaneski and assistant AD Shawna Lau Kong. Klaneski provided and set up the equipment at Saint Louis when the home team wasn’t able to live stream the title match.
“They are amazing. Eddie works his butt off day in and day out, getting the kids and programs prepared. The communication he has with the coaches is so awesome. It’s been an awesome experience working with him,” she said. “You can go ahead and just talk to him about anything going on. He tries so hard. He and Shawna work so diligently for us to have as normal a season possible.”