The last time University Lab School won a girls volleyball state championship…
>> Current coach Brad Miller was not alive. “I’m 29. I wasn’t even born yet.”
>> The Junior Rainbows were known as University High, long before the ULS brand became the norm.
>> George W. Bush was in his first term as U.S. president.
>> Gasoline was $1.89/gallon.
>> “Hold On’ by Wilson Phillips was the No. 1 song in the country.
>> South Africa finally freed Nelson Mandela from prison.
What hasn’t changed since 1990? University Lab still doesn’t have a gym of its own, and in 2021, the Jr. ‘Bows were not allowed to practice at their previous digs, Klum Gym, which is off limits.
This fall, they lost to Damien in preseason title matches. Twice. One was in five sets. The other in a single-game playoff.
Then came an 0-2 start with losses to Hawaii Baptist and Maryknoll, after a loss to Maryknoll, they were 2-3. There were a lot of long post-match talks. A lot of energy from Miller and his staff. And the one they call “Mom.”
Makena Tong was more than a good setter. Tong had 56 assists, five kills and 12 digs as University pulled out a five-set thriller over Le Jardin 28-26, 25-19, 19-25, 22-25, 15-9 on Saturday night for the Division II state crown. That’s the Jr. ‘Bows’ first girls volleyball championship since 1990.
“Makena has been one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached. One of the best players I’ve ever coached,” Miller said. “The girls call her ‘Mom,’ and she is mom to them, and she takes care of her kids. Anything that we had to get to the girls, it went through Makena, so we put a lot of pressure on her since day one. Had a lot of tears. Had a lot of long talks with her, but when I went out (after the championship win) and hugged her, I was like, Makena, what did you want from the very first beach conditioning that we did, what was your goal?
“ ‘State championship.’ And I was like, girl, you earned it. You earned it, kiddo. I’m so proud of you.”
Milan Ah Yat was sensational with 32 kids in 75 swings — one of the most attempts in a state-title match since Sarah Palmer of Hawaii Baptist had 96 swings more than a decade ago. Ah Yat also had a team-high 19 digs. Pi‘i Carvalho was elite-level versatile with 11 kills, four aces, 11 digs and two assists.
It took Tong’s energy and verve, plus an entire program’s accumulated grit and guts, to rise up from the early struggles.
“We just kept evolving and getting better every day,” Ah Yat said. “It took all of us, but I would say it was our leader, Makena Tong. She’s our rock and she led the team to victory today.”
Tong, daughter of ULS boys basketball coach Ryan Tong, leads by example and through verbal motivation. She and Carvalho gave their best, highest-decibel “Let’s go!” impression after the title match. In between sets, the Jr. ‘Bows returned to their lockerroom and got rejuvenated.
“Our coaches yell it. They yell, ‘Let’s go!!’ And we all yell, too,” Tong said.
She took her role as a leader to heart, but the culture is about team unity.
“I always do head count everywhere we go. Logan (Yogi) bakes muffins for us and brings it to practice, and we eat it after,” Tong said. “Everyone is a leader on the court, we can count on each other, we know our roles. Pi‘i and Milan even Maiah (Kalima-Izumi), we’re captains.”
“It just keeps the team in check. The girls on the court, they know what to do. When I see them struggling is when I step up and encourage them. It also keeps them playing, don’t fall down or the whole team will fall down. Push them to play harder,” Tong said.
Watching the replay on TV late Saturday night was surreal for Tong.
“It felt brand new. It felt insane. I couldn’t believe that was us on the court. Even losing those two sets, it felt brand new watching us. I didn’t know what would happen with each point. Watching that 15th point it was just crazy,” she said.
Miller saw his team rally from two down against Damien in the semifinal round to advance. After Le Jardin evened the title match with a rally, he knew his team had one last push.
“They could easily have folded after losing those two (sets). That’s been our mantra all year: just fight. Give me one more point. And that’s what they did. They deserve everything,” he said. “We began to hit our stride around mid-October and it’s been about trusting each other, trusting the process.”