First, it was Hawaii Baptist Academy scratching out an identity as a small school with a talent in girls volleyball.
That niche turned into a prominent program that occasionally took down the giants of Interscholastic League of Honolulu volleyball. Eventually, the Eagles seized Division II state championships in 2007, ’08, ’09 and, most recently, ’15.
HBA was one of the first of the smaller schools to patent a winning formula. Le Jardin (16-1) is the latest to concoct a special sauce of its own, and on Saturday night, the Bulldogs are back-to-back D-II state champions.
Le Jardin’s 25-23, 25-13, 22-25, 25-15 victory over Hawaii Baptist confirmed what Coach Lee Lamb and the program have done over a three-year span. It was in the ’15 state final when the Bulldogs met HBA and lost.
Now, despite the graduation of key players, they are repeat champions. They did it with a fabulous freshman setter, Nive Tuileta, and on the biggest night of the season, underclassmen like junior Halie Hetzler and freshman Ellie Diersbock came through big time, as did libero Kailee Lyons and middle Arianna Lunow‐Luke, both seniors.
That tiny enrollment on a picturesque expanse of green slopes at the foot of the Koolau Mountain Range is now a licensed and practicing dynasty in the making. Through the new season, as the aura of that first championship still glowed, Lamb did something that not a whole lot of coaches are willing to do.
He let go. Not completely, but he sensed something different. Something that struck to the core. His leaders, his four seniors, and particularly Julia Fisher and Natalie Piper, had the knowledge, insight and personalities to stoke a fire in a relatively young team.
“Last year was special. We had the whole group returning from the team that lost to HBA (in ’15) at the state finals, except for one kid. That was a legacy moment when we won last year,” Lamb said. “Our seniors had a much larger role in how things transpired this year, how we would attack practice and attack games. It’s nice to have a group with accountability.”
HBA’s longtime coach and guru, Myles Shioji, tweaked and tested different looks.
“It was a little bit of a chess match,” Lamb said. “Rotating lineups, (Ally) Wada against Piper in some situations. Then they caught fire on defense in the third set.”
HBA rallied from a 12-6 deficit took the third game, then hung on in the fourth. It was 17-14 when LJA took off like a rocket again.
“In that third set, we took our foot off the gas pedal a little bit,” Fisher said. “In the fourth set, we were like, hey, this is our set. If we open the door, they’re going to walk through it, so we couldn’t open the door.”
The Bulldogs’ lone loss came in the ILH D-II playoffs, at home, against Damien. But the next night, they beat Damien in the Monarchs’ gym to capture the league crown.
“We were like, we’re not going to lose, the fire and the passion, it was about how hard we worked,” said Piper, who plays with a motor that never stops revving. She finished the title match with 22 kills.
LJA was willing to cede in some way to HBA’s heavy-hitting Callie Langford, who finished with 24 kills. The Bulldogs just wanted her to never get a breather on the court, so they served her as often as possible.
“Our mind-set was we’re going to make Callie play the game of her life. We gave her a lot of hard balls to pass and she did a great job,” said Fisher, who smashed 23 kills from just about every spot on the floor.
Now Lamb and his staff can take a deep breath and marvel at what just happened.
“I want them to just enjoy this. They earned it. It was a big challenge, losing some critical players to graduation. They did a good job of making sure we were always ready,” he said. “The leadership by Natalie and Julia was special.”