The team in blue, Moanalua, played with heart to the end, but it was the team in red — Kahuku — that advanced to the semifinal round of the New City Nissan/HHSAA Girls Volleyball State Championships on Thursday night.
Just like that, unseeded Kahuku knocked out No. 2 seed Moanalua with an epic 25-23, 20-25, 25-22, 21-25, 15-11 victory, and they did it on Moanalua’s home court.
For Kahuku, which lost to Moanalua during the regular season (maxing out in a best-of-three), it was an evolutionary process. Kahuku was the fifth-place team out of the OIA, but during this postseason, the Lady Raiders essentially adopted the best qualities of league champion Moanalua to become a better team. Moanalua coach Alan Cabanting had seen his team run the table in the OIA with a 14-0 mark despite lacking a lot of power. Na Menehune depended on grit defensively, with sometimes sensational digging in the back row, and a lot of persistent, patience finesse on offense.
Kahuku? The Lady Raiders had plenty of power hitting, but the lack of defense led to a 7-4 regular season. There were stretches of brilliance, only to be neutralized by problems with passing or inconsistent hitting and more.
On Thursday, Kahuku (12-5) became a different team. In all, the Lady Raiders — cheered on at full volume by roughly 150 fans who made the long journey — came up with a whopping 90 digs.
> Serenity Mamizuka, 25
> Skyy Botelho, 17
> ShaLi Niu, 12
> Keaupunilani Kamakeeaina, 10
> Lauolive Tonga, 10
> Taylor Marasco, 6
> Ana Kemoeatu, 4
> Sachiko Williams, 3
> Katelyn Erickson, Penina Matau, Maresa Maiava, 1 each
Ninety digs doesn’t happen a whole lot on the high school level.
“I think they passed better tonight. They’ve always been a physical team, but because they passed well, now they’re in system,” Cabanting said. “Their middles (Tonga and Matau) killed us.”
With hitting percentages virtually canceling each other out — Kahuku hit .162 and Moanalua finished at .177 — other components were more pronounced in value.
Tonga finished with 13 kills and Matau added seven off the bench. Kahuku got the kill edge in the middle, 20-8. Another major advantage: aces. Kahuku finished with a 10-2 edge, getting four from Kemoeatu, two each from Tonga and Kamakeeaina, and one apiece from Niu and Matau.
There were times, such as the second set, when Lady Raiders coach Mounia Tachibana could have called time out while her team was reeling. She sat stoically, never too up and never too down.
“This is the most consistent they’ve been all year. We’ve done everything together. Losing points together. Winning points together. The only true returnees I had were ShaLi and Lauolive,” Tachibana said. “Trust. We struggled with it at the beginning of the season. To be honest, I felt more like a counselor than a coach.”
Tachibana is not a counselor by profession. She learned to help connect her players with help, including that of her soft-spoken senior, Niu. The talented, versatile senior will play at George Mason University next season, but one of her newly developed skills is leadership.
“ShaLi has never had to be a leader until this year,” Tachibana said.
The coach also went much deeper, 13 players deep, on Thursday. Unlike the best-of-three regular season, the playoffs and state tourney are best-of-five. Tachibana almost had no choice, but she had no hesitation, either.
“A lot of teams go with their best six or seven. We needed fresh legs,” she said.
The result was a lot of balance. Fifteen kills by Erickson, who had possibly the best match of her career. Kemoeatu was relentless with 13 kills, while Niu had a triple-double with 11 kills, 22 assists and the 12 digs. Kamakeeaina dished out 25 assists.
“Toward the end of the fourth set, even though we lost, I felt real excited,” Niu said. “I feel like our serve-receive is better.”
It all came back to defense on a night of long rallies, one after another, and two teams clinging on in the final set like two great boxers in the 15th (or 12th) round.
Kahuku played closer to its potential than it had all season. Moanalua, with Hula Crisostomo playing through an injury, got hearty efforts from Sara Ehnstrom (13 kills, 21 assists, 13 digs), Emily Dulaney (11 kills, 25 assists, 11 digs) and Delylah Sanerivi (seven kills, two blocks). Jeslyn Spencer (19 kills) led the attack, and in all Na Menehune amassed 77 digs.
> Crisostomo, 23
> Tayli Ikenaga, 17
> Ehnstrom, 13
> Rainbeau Oliveira, 12
> Destiny Ramilo, 1
Against perhaps any other team in the quarterfinal round, Moanalua — ranked No. 4 in the Star-Advertiser Girls Volleyball Top 10 — would likely have eked out victory. Against Kahuku, it was a case of great competition creating excellence in the losing team. It was iron sharpening iron. Kahuku, unranked, became sharper.
“Our girls overachieved even with all the firepower coming at them,” Cabanting said. “They never gave up. They continued to fight.”