The Mid-Pacific Owls were in one of the strangest, happiest predicaments of the time warp known as the ILH girls volleyball spring 2021 season.
Despite four out-of-rotation violations in the third and deciding set, fifth-seeded Mid-Pacific served on match point, leading 24-23 against the home team, fourth-seeded Le Jardin. Then, the unthinkable happened again. Another rotation violation, their fifth of the third set, gave the Bulldogs another free point, tying the set at 24.
“I know a lot of us get nervous and it’s like kind of toe clenching and all that, but we knew that we could fight it out. We knew that if we stayed in it point after point, that we could eventually win it all,” senior setter Nive Tuileta said.
The game was tied again at 25 and 26 before sophomore Nene Hawkins drilled her 13th kill of the match. A moment later, Tuileta roofed MPI’s Luna Suzuki to end the battle. Le Jardin’s 18-25, 25-10, 28-26 victory eliminated Mid-Pacific from the ILH single-elimination playoffs at Charles B. Wang Gymnasium.
The Bulldogs will visit top seed Punahou on Saturday. LPA (3-6) lost both regular-season matches to the Buffanblu.
“It was definitely good to get that under our belt. We knew it was going to be a tight match. Mid-Pacific had been playing well. There was some craziness in that third set. I’m just glad to get on to the next one,” Le Jardin coach Lee Lamb said. “I just thought it was a gutsy performance for us. It would be easy to get flustered in that situation. I thought they did a great job of managing their composure. I thought they played really steady with the right amount of energy at the end. Some of the seniors have been in Division II championships, so that wasn’t about coaching. That was all the kids down the line.”
For seniors like Tuileta, the revival of girls volleyball — postponed from the fall of 2020 — is a godsend. She already had a plan beyond high school, to play at Santa Clara next season, but the ILH is the only league in Hawaii that kept girls volleyball alive in the 2020-21 pandemic year.
“I feel excited for the future and kind of sad. I get one last season with girls I’ve been playing club (Kaulukoa) and school with for a long time,” Tuileta said.
Tuileta finished with 30 assists, three kills, one ace and three blocks. Hawkins added two blocks and four assists, Alishya Roman tallied seven kills and Ellie Diersbock added six kills and three blocks. Reese Diersbock chipped in four blocks and two blocks, and junior Ryu Kalahiki provided four crucial aces.
Suzuki led the Owls with 14 kills while Kalei Lyons had eight, and Makela Pick and Deb Chun had seven each. Pick also had a block. Sarae Miguel tallied six kills and a block. Setter Alyssa Muraoka amassed 34 assists and one ace.
For Mid-Pacific (0-9), the frustration of the close loss came with the full understanding that victory was in hand. After the second-set trouncing by Le Jardin, Owls coach Tommy Lake decided to tweak his lineup, but didn’t get his paperwork done in time. That led to the five violations as the confused Owls tried to figure out what the problem was.
“That was my bad. I should’ve taken more time,” Lake said. “I’d written my lineup, but didn’t flip it all the way. I meant to turn it two spots.”
It is the nature of the ILH, with extreme competition in academics and athletics, that an 0-9 team is able to play at state-tournament level.
“That’s a testament to their kids. They’re able to play through it. It changes the dynamic and the tempo of the game. You’ve got to battle through that. That’s not an excuse. I thought they played really well. I’m thankful that we got by them,” Lamb said.
In the opening set, an ace by senior libero Erin Goya sparked the visiting Owls to a 9-2 lead before Lamb called time out.
“We didn’t want this to be the last game of our season. We knew we have the girls and the talent to keep on going and win this whole thing. We had to reset,” Tuileta said.
Le Jardin adjusted and rallied for a 13-12 lead after an MPI hitting error, but the Owls regained momentum as Goya notched another ace. Suzuki had five kills and an ace in the first set as the Owls won going away.
Lamb tweaked the game plan just a bit.
“We didn’t change anything in our rotation. We just spun the dial. So we started in rotation four instead of rotation one. We felt like the matchup was a little better,” he said. “We spun the dial. So I think Tommy tried to counter that. If I understand what he was trying to do, he was trying to spin it to third a little bit to get the matchups back up in his favor.”
Le Jardin opened the second set with a 13-3 lead and waltzed to victory, tying the match. Ellie Diersbock had two of LJA’s four blocks in the set.
A 10-minute delay at the start of the third set was ominous. A 2-0 MPI lead was eventually changed to 1-1 after the Owls’ first out-of-rotation error. By the time the total of rotation violations was up to four by MPI, the Bulldogs had a 16-11 lead.
Down 20-17, the Owls got kills from Suzuki before a block by Lyons vaulted them to a 22-21 lead. The set was tied at 22, and then at 23 when Tuileta committed a service error to give MPI the lead again.
That’s when the fifth MPI out-of-rotation violation gave Le Jardin the biggest break of the night.
“We kind of lost focus, but we all talked to each other. We knew we had to stay focused and get through this,” Tuileta said. “The seniors, we said to each other, we don’t want this to be our last game. We had to fight and grit it out.”
Next up, Punahou.
“We know we’re able to beat big teams like that. I know there’s people that always doubt us, but we always say through the past four years that I’ve been on this team that we’re the underdogs and we’re always going to come out strong, fighting,” Tuileta said. “I think we’re going to be able to do that on Saturday.”
Lamb is optimistic. The semifinal matchup with Punahou has a old-school, David-versus-Goliath, Villanova-versus-Georgetown feel to it.
“No matter how it goes down, we’re going to have to play some of our best volleyball. We’ve got to execute well, but I like our chances. I think our team is really capable. We have a lot of veterans on this team. We’ve had a couple of opportunities to see (Punahou). I like that as well,” Lamb said. “I’ve been telling the kids all season, who cares about the record? This is all buildup to the final moment. It’s about who’s going to peak at the right time. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”