Saving their best for last: Punahou stuns ‘Iolani for state title

Punahou raised the Division I state championship trophy after beating 'Iolani in four sets. Photo by Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser.

Two powerhouses, one throne.

Punahou made up an impressive amount of ground in a span of two weeks, emerging from the runner-up spot in the ILH to state champion for an eighth year in a row.

In the process, Coach Rick Tune’s team tipped over the mighty machine of ‘Iolani, which had played superlative volleyball, particularly while sinking Punahou three times late in the ILH season. The Buffanblu’s 25-16, 24-26, 25-19, 25-22 victory over top-seeded ‘Iolani wasn’t a shock. It was a testament to the power of resilience and creativity.


The questions were answered. The powerhouse Buffanblu were a battleship loaded with max-sized weapons a year ago. Punahou was virtually unscathed en route to the New City Nissan/HHSAA state title. But with five new starters and a number of returnees who hadn’t see major playing time in the past, it seemed fair enough that even the dynastic Buffanblu were due for slippage.

Even numbers matter
Punahou handled ‘Iolani in their first two matchups of the season before ‘Iolani flipped the script. By the end, the two programs split their six meetings evenly, 3-3.

The chess match between Tune and ‘Iolani’s young guru, Jordan Inafuku, was must-see viewing each time. Punahou didn’t waver, not through the stages of passive-aggressive-passive growth, and not through the most important week of the season.

“We definitely put in a couple of defenses strictly for their offense. We’ve been practicing those and working on tempo sets, X-series, we’ve been prepping for this match for about three weeks,” Tune said.

One of those looks was the use of explosive senior Jakob Kimura through the middle rather than the right side. Punahou didn’t use the play continuously, but it was enough to give ‘Iolani’s rugged defense one more look to be conscious of.

“We just executed better tonight,” Kimura said.

They also mastered the right spacing and angles to challenge ‘Iolani’s outstanding hitters, Kawika Lee and Kupono Browne. Given another week to adjust, Inafuku and his staff would have a counter to Punahou’s new wrinkles, for sure. That’s what chess masters do.

“It’s a good thing we don’t play each other in a week, because then I’d have to keep working,” Tune said. “I’m tired. It’s been a long season.”

Appropriate emotional response
All season long, Tune said earlier in the state tourney, Punahou has endured this back-and-forth, this tug-of-war in the battle for mind space. Tune termed it “appropriate emotional response.”

It glitched their momentum as recently as Friday night during the five-set battle — “a war” in Tune’s perspective — when Moanalua zoomed to a quick 3-0 lead in the final game.

Back row stoppers Davis Lau and Shea Suzumoto, alternately steady and spectacular against the state’s greatest offensive weapons, hadn’t heard the phrasing by Tune before, but they got the gist easily.

“You know, I think something that’s cool about our team is that we’re steady throughout the whole game,” Lau said. “We don’t really go on highs or lows. We kind of stay steady. If we’re down five points or whatever, we’ll always come back. We won’t be over-exaggerating. If we’re up five points, we won’t be over-celebrating.”

At that point, down 3-0 on Moanalua’s boisterous home court, Punahou reacted this way — neither extremely stoic nor extremely emotional.

“I think just finding the mid-point, just knowing the situation and playing hard and working hard,” said Suzumoto, who had the expression of an assassin during the key moments of the championship match 24 hours later.

Ice. Cold. Killer.

Underdog Champions
“It just served as motivation. We were just keyed in tonight on each of our individual jobs, and I think just being on the same page really helped us be successful.”
— Libero Shea Suzumoto

Maybe they never viewed themselves as the downtrodden, almost forgotten 36-time (now 37 state champions. Or maybe they did. Nobody’s really saying.

Jumping jack flash
The Punahou block was irrepressible on Saturday night at Blaisdell Arena, taking much of the edge off ‘Iolani’s attack. Kimura, Jack Deuchar, Robert Allen, Braxdon Simmons. It wasn’t just their explosion and defensive chemistry. It was the way they increased the level of activity and relentlessness even after blowing a 24-21 lead in set two.

All without the power of energy drinks or straight caffeine. How does that happen?

“I felt like we were a little tired, definitely, after the long battle last night (against Moanalua),” Simmons said. “I think tonight being the last game we could possibly play, senior year, seven of us graduating, this is the last time we’re going to wear a Punahou jersey. So I think that gave us the energy and motivation we needed.”

Maybe the extra boost also came from a massive throng of Punahou students who were epically loud from start to finish, and filled every time out with constant cheering and occasional sarcasm toward their frenemies supporting ‘Iolani on the other side of the arena.

“We brought a lot of classmates and school friends, and they showed up and gave us all the energy we needed,” Simmons said.

The final tune of the night
Sometime earlier in the season, perhaps after ‘Iolani beat Punahou for the ILH crown, an observer mentioned that it might not be altogether shocking if and when the Buffanblu reversed course and rolled into the state final against that same Raiders squad.

That as tough as the obstacle would be, that Tune and his staff have a history of extracting every last drop of potential from their teams — whether they were loaded to the gills with talent or not. But to beat ‘Iolani with all the chips pushed to the middle? That would be the work of a Houdini.

“These guys embraced the challenge of a different path. It’s the first time in, I don’t know, 15 years that we had to go through the path that we did,” he said. “They got to write their own story.”

Tune says…

>> Jakob Kimura: “Jakob Kimura turned it on, man. We always knew he had that in him, but he finally believed in himself. We gave him a bigger role and he stepped up to it. He was awesome.”

>> Davis Lau: “Davis Lau is the consummate team player. On most any team in the state, he would be the starting lib. He’s been playing behind Shea for two years. He was engaged and ready to go in anytime we called on him, and he produced.”

>> Shea Suzumoto: “The world would be a better place with 10 more Shea Suzumotos.”

>> Jack Deuchar: “Jack assumed the leadership mantle like I knew he could. In terms of, you could tell he’s not the rah-rah guy, but he’s the guy, when your best players are the ones who are your hardest workers, and they’re the ones driving the bus, he was saying give me the ball, let’s focus, you got this. He was doing all the things that leaders do.”

>> Robert Allen: “Robby Allen was a presence for us in the middle tonight. Robby, super competitive, always wants to do well, always gives 100 percent. I’m going to miss him.”

>> Braxdon Simmons: “Braxdon Simmons, the first thing that comes to mind is, he and I have built that level of trust over the year. He’ll know what I mean by this, but we finally got on the same page and he absolutely had a wonderful state tournament. This is the best he’s played all year, especially from a defensive standpoint. I’m just so proud of him.”

>> Kawai Hong: “Kawai Hong, he’s one of our engines on this team. He’s a guy we rely on to pass. We rely on him to get kills, block, you know, put pressure on teams serving. He was the complete package tonight.”

>> Connor McInerny: “Connor McInerny grew by leaps and bounds, I think, this season. Just his overall understanding and tactical implementation of game plans. He was masterful tonight of knowing who to go to, and when, and exploring the matchups. I thought he did a wonderful job.”

>> Keegan Au Yuen: “Keegan’s got a bright future. He’s a freshman. You know, the lights got a little bright for him at the end of that second set, but I told him look, I’ve only started two freshmen in the history of my coaching career. One of them is Micah Mar and the other is Riley McKibbin. Those are the only two freshmen who have started for me. That’s how much I think of Keegan.”

>> Claudio Clini: “Claudio’s a gamer. He always brings it. He has always brought it in the biggest matches. He’s been on varsity since sophomore year. He’s a vocal leader for us. He brings the intensity that we need. He was a big reason for our success against in shutting down those really potent right-side hitters.”

Righting the ship
Up 1-0 in the match, Punahou had ‘Iolani in a seeming vice grip, leading 24-21 in game two. But the Raiders are the Raiders. The greatness of ‘Iolani volleyball was on display in a 5-0 run to win the set and even the match. Punahou looked human for the first time all night. It would have been easy to collapse.

“What I told the guys was, look, for one full set and 90 percent, maybe 95 percent of another set, you guys played amazing volleyball. Don’t let five points define the way you’re playing, because 90 percent of the time, you’re playing lights out,” Tune said. “It’s going to take a little more work, but we came in thinking, we’re playing five sets tonight. ‘Iolani is well coached. They goes hard. Everybody does their job. ‘Iolani is a good team.”


  1. Mahatma Gandhi May 5, 2019 12:01 pm

    Sweetest of wins, winning the state championship when the other team is favored to win.
    Is Iolani recruiting volleyball players now? They do on the wahine side.

  2. Jim Diamond May 5, 2019 12:38 pm

    Hey, Mahatma, I call BS.
    Iolaniu DOESN’T recruit.
    That’s ALL punahou.

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