By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
They’ve been on a collision course all year.
Hawaii Prep’s volleyball team has been experimenting with taller lineups for matches just like this. On the other side, Konawaena’s been working to diminish the importance of height.
With an automatic berth to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament on the line, their meeting tonight in Kealakekua is the biggest of the regular season in Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II. The junior varsity match starts at 6 p.m., with the varsity to follow.
Both teams feature similar resumes: a 10-2 record, with the only blemishes coming against Division I heavyweights, at home against Hilo and on the road in five sets to Kamehameha.
Armed with an unusually high amount of club players for a West Hawaii school, first-year coach Ainsley Keawekane’s Wildcats have lived up to their high billing so far. But when he was asked to measure his team’s progress, he took a wait-and-see approach.
“I guess we’ll find out (today),” he said.
For sheer drama, it will be hard for Ka Makani to top their last match.
On Saturday night in Waimea, Hilo outlasted HPA in a five-set classic — 9-25, 25-18, 34-36, 26-24, 15-13 — despite a big effort from outside hitter Gabbie Ewing, who tallied 36 kills on 70 swings and hit .514.
“Everything she does is from the heart,” coach Sharon Peterson said of the 5-foot-7 junior. “She’s a great competitor.”
The Ka Makani twice lost leads late in the decisive set, but Peterson said she couldn’t have scripted a better tuneup for the Wildcats.
“It was one that will go down in the record books,” she said. “Konawaena will be the same as Hilo. Strong outside hitters, very similar games in terms of power hitting with a lot of players with club experience. Pretty good height, good jumping ability and tough competitors.
“We’ve made some adjustments, and Hilo was the perfect team to try it on.”
The veteran coach tweaked her lineup, moving 5-11 Asia Kaden to the right side so that 5-9 Tiana Reynolds could fill in at middle blocker.
While HPA has thrived on offense behind Ewing (17.5 kills per match, .479 hitting percentage) and Reynolds (10.1, .388), the Wildcats are at their best when they’re balanced.
Keawekane said his team had to rely on 5-6 sophomore Chanelle Molina as its go-to hitter earlier in the season, but the emergence of her sister, freshman setter Celena Molina, has helped make the Wildcats more well-rounded. Keawekane described the younger Molina as “a mechanical hitter,” and her role in Konawaena’s two-setter system has allowed senior Makani Wall to take more swings.
“And Makani really likes to hit,” he said.
Also featuring rightside hitter Ihi Victor and Kaela Avanilla, Konawaena has plenty of athleticism, even if its somewhat lacking in tall players.
Keawekane called height a nonfactor, however.
“I’ve taught a lot of the kids how to hit against a bigger block,” he said. “They’re used to it.”
That includes one of HPA’s standout hitters.
In club play, Ewing and Ka Makani setter Carina Verhulsdonk are teammates with many of Konawaena’s players coached by Keawekane at Ho’opa Hawaii.
“We know what to expect for Gabbie, but she knows what to expect from us,” he said.
While both teams have earned byes into the BIIF semifinals on Oct. 18, the winner will earn the top seed in the playoffs and the first of three state berths in D-II since it can finish in no worse than a tie for the regular-season championship and it will own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The regular season wraps up Saturday and the eight-team playoffs start Tuesday.