University rallies past Le Jardin in epic ILH D-II title match

The University Jr. 'Bows made it a season to remember in the fall of 2021. They won eight of their last nine matches in ILH play, including a five-set thriller over Le Jardin for the ILH crown. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvej

Expectations and goals could have been lower for the Jr. ‘Bows of University High.

They know the lows well. As of Monday night, they know the highest of highs, too. ULS’ 25-20, 25-27, 20-25, 25-21, 15-7 win over Le Jardin for the ILH Division II championship on Monday wasn’t as much shocking as it was an extraordinary pinnacle, a genuine turnaround from a 1-3 start.

A team this young, so unfamiliar with each other, coming back from a cancelled season, would never really know heartbreak. Or would it? Just a couple of weeks into preseason, University had lost to Damien. Twice. In tournament finals. The first was at Damien’s tourney, with the title decided in a single-set playoff.

A week later, at the Hawaii Invitational in Kekuhaupio Gym, it was Damien again that thwarted the Jr. ‘Bows in the final. This one was a best-of-three match. Coach Brad Miller and his staff saw great potential, but their players felt the frustration.

“Our coach said we had to pick ourselves up,” senior setter Makena Tong said on Monday night, moments after University (9-4) won the ILH Division II girls volleyball championship. “That was only the beginning of the season and yeah, they were tough losses, but we had all the tools that we needed and we tried to do it together. This is a new team, our first time playing together, and we did it.”

Milan Ah Yat was a workhorse with 22 kills and three aces. Tong was remarkable with 50 assists, eight assists and one ace. Pi‘i Carvalho (13 kills), Jersey Villanueva (10 kills), Gia Ma (three aces) and Tai Sorenson (three aces) were clutch in the biggest night of their season thus far.

“We just wanted to play loose and just have fun, and not worry about the score. Just play for each other,” Carvalho said. “We’re so thankful for everyone coming out, for everyone cheering for us, it helped a lot.”

Ah Yat, with her blonde-tipped hair cutting through the air, was relieved.

“I feel great,” she said. “I’m so happy! We did it, we did it!”

The mantra that helped the Jr. ‘Bows climb back into the ILH title chase was in play on championship night.

“Coach told us to not give up and play with our na‘au, our (heart), and that helped push us back to get where we are,” Ah Yat said.

Milan Ah Yat and Pi‘i Carvalho provided plenty of firepower in University’s five-set championship victory over an equally tough Le Jardin squad. Paul Honda/
Senior setter Makena Tong was clutch with 50 assists and eight kills in University’s ILH-title victory over Le Jardin. Paul Honda/
University girls volleyball coach Brad Miller and staff helped the Jr. “Bowls ascend from the ashes of a 1-3 start in league play. Paul Honda/

Tong was a constant, walking example of composure and vigor from start to finish. Her craftsmanship as a setter made for a superb duel with her counterpart, Gennezia Hawkins (43 assists, four kills, ace). All things being equal, ULS had that crucial edge at serve with a 12-3 advantage in aces.

“We focus on that a lot. We know they have two big hitters, and with their height and jump, they’re super good. They tower over us,” Tong said. “So we practice on our serve and serve-receive, and that’s how we win the game. I feel amazed. As a senior, it’s amazing.”

She took the time and effort to invite her senior classmates. They responded by showing up in a big way.

“I invited all of them. They’re all my classmates. Having their energy out there was amazing,” Tong said.

Two months ago, the Jr. ‘Bows had to rebuild their confidence after each loss. Their mettle as a team was consistently tested.

When the regular season began, Hawaii Baptist swept University in the opener. Two days later, another loss to Damien, a sweep at the Lady Monarchs’ gym.

ULS broke the losing streak with a sweep of ‘Iolani I-AA. Then came a four-set loss at Maryknoll, which was ranked No. 7 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10 at the time. The Spartans won the first set 35-33. A confidence boost.

The pattern of their schedule included this: every match was on the road. With Klum Gym off limits, the Jr. ‘Bows got used to being road warriors. By Oct. 15, a breakthrough: a sweep of then-No. 10 Le Jardin.

Wins over Punahou I-AA and Hanalani kept the momentum rolling. Then, the opening match of the ILH’s double-elimination playoff tourney. University, the fifth seed, won at fourth-seed HBA in four sets.

That same night, top seed Damien lost middle Tiani Souza to a leg injury during a win over St. Andrew’s. Six days later, University swept Damien, ranked No. 5 in the state, at La Pietra’s gym.

What in the what? That win clinched a state-tournament berth for the Jr. ‘Bows.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Perennial powerhouse Le Jardin swept University a few days later. Down to its last out, so to speak, ULS swept Maryknoll to earn a rematch with Le Jardin.

So, on Saturday, the Jr. ‘Bows stunned Le Jardin, ranked seventh statewide at the time, in four sets to force a winner-take-all showdown.

Fast-forward to Monday night and an epic five-set thriller for the ages unfolded. ULS took the opening set, energized by its student supporters. There were at least 75 of them, all sitting behind the University bench on makeshift bleachers. They were so loud, it often felt like a home match for the Jr. ‘Bows.

For stretches at a time, University seemed to have little resistance to the rocket-launching power of LJA’s Reese Diersbock (25 kills). Setter Gennezia Hawkins’ was pinpoint with back sets to the right side as the home team rallied for a 2-1 lead in the match.

But the Jr. ‘Bows were balanced. Unyielding.

“With this season being extended so long, we’ve really had to come to work every day. It’s easy when the girls work that hard for you. As long as this season has been, the girls have made it worth it. This is all them, 100 percent, all the girls,” coach Miller said. “We have ‘Kena, our quarterback. Gia, our right side, just steady-eddie on the blocking, and Chaz (Oda), she played a phenomenal game, maybe not showing up on the stat line, but she touched everything at the block. Their leadership has been invaluable,” he said.

After four sets of heavyweight power, the fifth came down to serving and passing.

“We definitely exchanged blows. They got us out of system and we got them out of system. Just hat’s off to Lee (Lamb). He’s one of the best coaches out there. We played well enough tonight and we’re just going to soak it in,” Miller said.

There wasn’t much left in the coach’s gravelly voice after 2 hours and 22 minutes of epic, championship volleyball.

“My voice is gone so I’m going to have to talk to my students tomorrow with this,” said Miller, a teacher at Kaimuki Middle School. “At the end of the day, this is all for our team, our kids, and I have the best staff out there.”


  1. Lee Lamb November 23, 2021 12:45 pm

    Congrats to Brad and the Jr. Bows. It went down as any championship match should, with a lot of heart, determination, and skill being displayed on both sides of the net. Lots of great energy from (all) the fans too.

    Special shoutout to Makena Tong and Milan Ah Yat. Makena is one of the most underrated setters in the state and they both have a never say die attitude. They both displayed great leadership last night. (Note: I’m not discounting the rest of the team, they played a great match and it was a team effort through and through. Congrats to each and every one of you.)

    To the Lady Bulldogs, I believe…

    Let’s go!!!!

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