By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
With a pending two-hour bus ride on deck, Kohala will have a long time to get into the right frame of mind for a familiar foe in the first round of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II volleyball playoffs.
The Cowgirls (8-7) travel to play St. Joseph (9-6) at 6 p.m. today at the Cardinals Gym, a rematch of last season when Kohala was the home team and eliminated the Cards.
During the regular season, St. Joe beat Kohala in four sets early in the season, but since then a transformation has impressed Cowgirls coach Dwayne “Braddah” Keyes.
“I like the team’s attitude. They’ve changed their attitude around, like 360 degrees,” he said. “I like how we’re playing together. We’ve still got work to do on that, but we’re doing it more. We’re a really young team with only two seniors (Sariah Medeiros and Shaylen Reyes-Galan).
“We struggled with talking and communication, but our attitude changed a lot and we’re starting to talk now. We’re starting to gel and come together. The team knows what to do and is working hard.”
Last season, the Cowgirls rode the steady play of setter Chyler Imai, who’s now a defender at Western New Mexico. Kohala lost to two-time defending BIIF champion Hawaii Prep in the semifinals and to Ka‘u in the third-place game.
The last time Kohala qualified for the state tournament was 1999, when there wasn’t statewide classification. The coach back then was Celeste Keyes, Braddah Dwayne’s mom, who has passed along simple advice.
“She constantly reminds me to stick to the basics, not to get too fancy, just set the ball to the outside,” he said. “Another big thing too is attitude. That plays a big role in my coaching. There’s more to life than volleyball.”
The Cowgirls don’t feature a lot of height and will have tough task trying to stop senior Haley Thorsen, St. Joe’s 5-foot-10 outside hitter.
But Keyes knows the best way to limit a go-to slugger’s swings is to serve tough — a fundamental part of the game Kohala works hard to sharpen.
“Our strength is our serving,” he said. “If we serve a good game, we’ll play a good game. If our serves are not good, anything can happen. Our offense is OK. We’re working a lot on transition. Our defense is about digging balls more. We’re not a tall team, but we’ve got a couple of girls who can block.”
Outside hitter Hauoli Sproat-Lancaster, setter Mohala Kaholoaa-Kumukoa and libero Jocelyn Campollo, all juniors, are the toughest servers.
Sproat-Lancaster and Kaholoaa-Kumukoa power their serves while Campollo relies on placement. Sproat-Lancaster also offers a bit of height at 5 feet 8, so she’ll likely start on the right to shadow Thorsen, a hard hitter with accurate aim.
“Hauoli is our toughest server. We’ve been working on it at practice and I’ve been encouraging her to go for it,” Keyes said. “No sense to lollipop a serve over. She’s got whip on her arm, like a quarterback. Her swing is really wide and she gets a lot of power behind the ball. It’s tough and consistent. I have a hard time passing it.
“Mohala is a power server, too. It’s like a tough float. It comes over fast and she throws her whole body into it. If it comes in between two players, it’s tough to pass. We have to concentrate on serving and passing. Whoever wins that will come out the victor.”
If St. Joe senior setter Georgia Pirie gets a clean pass, she’s good at putting the ball on the money for Thorsen and sophomore Alison Fuata, an athletic middle and hitter.
“We’ll probably start Hauoli on the weak side,” Keyes said. “You can’t go through her block. You have to go around. Maybe that will slow things down a little bit.”
The other starters are Reyes-Galan, Medeiros and her sister, junior Ivy Medeiros, and sophomore Denae Rivera, who was promoted from the junior varsity.
“Denae plays outside hitter and also set for the JV. She had a lot of playing time,” Keyes said. “I like her play. She’s not scared. She’ll go get that ball and hit that ball. She’s pretty athletic. She’s small at 5-6, but she’s tough.”
Another strength of the Cowgirls is their versatility, a valuable tool picked after last season when they had just seven players in the playoffs.
“The girls have learned to play all the positions,” Keyes said. “We ran into problems in the Final Four when he had only seven players. Everybody can fill in at any spot. Last year, the two sisters were sick and two other girls were on grade check. We’ve got a full squad, so that looks on the upside for us.”
The two-hour bus ride over to Hilo will give the Kohala coach a long time to find inspiring words to motivate his team.
“I thinking of giving a speech on the bus to maybe help their jitters. No doubt the girls will be nervous to play,” he said. “I’ll try to install confidence in them. No matter what happens, I’ll be proud of them.
“I’ll be more proud if they have the attitude to play together and work hard for every point. If they play with confidence I know they can do it.”
Ka‘u has never won a BIIF title in volleyball for either the boys or girls. But the Trojans are in good position to make school history.
The Trojans are in the bracket opposite two-time BIIF champion Hawaii Prep and Konawaena. They beat the Ka Makani in four sets and edged the Wildcats in a five-set marathon during the regular season.
Instead of feeling pressure, coach Josh Ortega has taken a different approach. The Trojans have embraced the challenge.
“It would be fun to achieve something like that. Winning BIIFs would be a big thing for our little gym,” he said. “To bring a banner back home and represent themselves and their school is something the girls are trying to do.
“We’re in a really good position with the No. 1 seed coming out of league play. We’re in the best spot we can be. Those two teams, one will knock the other off in the semifinals. For us, we need to play our game.”
With a weapon like 5-11 senior middle Marley Strand-Nicolaisen, Ortega’s focus is not putting balls down on offense, rather it’s stopping the other team from scoring.
Anyway, when opponents threw double blocks at Strand-Nicolaisen, the Trojans spread the ball and senior middle Kaila Olson and outside hitter Kamalani Fujikawa provided necessary balance. But Ortega is a defensive coach at heart.
“The best thing I like and this goes back to when I played in high school is defense wins games,” he said. “You can have all the offense in the world, but if there’s no passing then that’s a point for them. I believe in passing and defense. Fortunately, we have hitters who can attack, too. But we take pride in the defensive part.”