The dream of an Oahu Interscholastic Association Division I volleyball title ended for Waipahu’s boys team on Tuesday night, while the dream continued for the Mililani Trojans.
Mililani’s 16-25, 25-20, 25-20, 31-29 semifinal win at James Alegre Gymnasium was a microcosm of the Trojans’ season to date. So much potential, a deep arsenal of weapons, and plenty of defense to withstand one of the league’s hottest teams.
“After the team Mililani had last year, I think a lot of people assumed it would be a rebuilding year with a lot of new faces,” Trojans coach Trenton Niino said. “That is a fact, but rebuilding doesn’t necessarily have to be negative term.”
Mililani looked like anything but a team in rebuild mode. For awhile, though, the Marauders made it interesting. The West’s third-place team took game one against the division winner, Mililani. They hit .583, had five blocks and three aces. Waipahu looked like it might take one step closer toward winning its first Division I* title since 1991.
But something happened in game 2, even as Mililani hit a miserly .095. The Trojans’ depth became a factor. Big factor. Thirty-two swings later — backed by a consistently effective back-row defense — the Trojans simply wore out the younger Marauders. Waipahu’s major hitter, Jeminae Solomua, went from five kills in seven swings (game 1) to one kill in six swings with one hitting error in game 2. The support? Sophomore Bradley Tacata had two kills and freshman Frank Vili had one kill in the second set.
Meanwhile, Mililani setter Chance Guillermo kept sending the ball left, right, middle and back row. Nathaniel Johnson was a moderate contributor offensively in game 2 with three kills, but he was consistent at the net defensively with two blocks. After getting rolled 25-16 in the opening game, Mililani won the second 25-20. Momentum was on its side.
The third set was pivotal, of course, and Waipahu came out firing with Tacata landing five kills, but Mililani kept rolling. The offensive attack hit .350 in game 3, spurred by Sila Fuiava’s eight kills. The Trojans had the edge at serve (2-0) and the net (3-1 edge in blocks). In games 2 and 3, the Trojans had more swings (32-21 and 40-27), which adds up to 50 percent more opportunity.
That turnaround and dominance is what made Waipahu’s rally in the fourth set that much more endearing. The Marauders never quit, pushing the game to the hilt before losing 31-29. By the end, Mililani finished with 145 swings to Waipahu’s 102. The better team won, though Waipahu nearly forced a fifth set through sheer determination.
Solomua finished with 14 kills in just 26 swings and Tacata added 13 kills. Sophomore Ken Boctot added eight kills and 3.5 blocks, and Vili tallied six kills and one block.
Mililani, with more depth and options, got 24 kills and two aces (and a block) from the energetic Fuiava. He alone, however, couldn’t carry the Trojans. Johnson came up with three kills and an ace in the third set, and then became the hammer in the fourth with seven kills, a block and an ace. He finished with 15 kills and two aces, plus three blocks.
Guillermo’s penchant for sending back-row sets to Fuiava kept Waipahu’s defense guessing, and Fuiava was especially effective from the left side, facing the opposite sideline and bringing the ball down the left side. Fuiava finished with 55 attempts (.382), including no hitting errors until the fourth set, when he had three.
Johnson finished with 35 attempts, including eight hitting errors. However, only two of those hitting errors came in the final two sets.
“I could not be more proud of Nathaniel. Over the course of one year, he has grown tremendously as a volleyball player. He has become a huge hitter for our team and it’s great to have that 1-2 punch with him and Sila on the outsides,” Niino said. “Nathaniel has been working so hard not only on his offense, but his defense, as well. He has become a steady passer and a great defensive player.”
The rise of the Trojans will be tested by the unbeaten Na Menehune of Moanalua. Niino is marching forward, one step at a time, unrelenting. Calm and unrelenting.
“I feel that our team is peaking, but has not reached its full potential. There is still a lot of aspects of our game that we need to work on and fine tune. If there is ever a time for our team to peak it is now,” he said.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable things about the season for Niino has been the buy-in.
“I came into this season with the intention of changing the entire program and I told this to the boys at the start of the season. I asked them to hop on board and give it a chance. That is what surprised me the most, is how much this team has adapted to change and a new system,” he said. “That’s a true testament to their character and the type of person they will become.”
Niino, in his spectacles, could pass for a college student. He does, however, lay down the boundaries when it comes to bench behavior. During the Waipahu match, some players stood up for the match point.
“The reason I told the bench to sit down was because I think it’s a rule that only the head coach is allowed to stand up on the bench during a game. But it’s also about respect. It’s great to show emotion and it’s great to cheer on your teammates, but on a stage like that, it’s also important to be humble,” Niino said. “Moanalua will be a tough team to play, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, we are going to work hard to prepare for them, and hopefully fight hard.”