By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Patience was part of the deal for Chelzie Ulu, who waited a long time to join the Hilo girls volleyball team, adding to an element that is already a strength.
The 5-foot-8 senior middle blocker provides more depth to a front row that Hilo (6-0) will heavily rely on against Kamehameha (8-0) today in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I match at Koai‘a Gym.
“She’s always pushing herself and her teammates,” Hilo coach Olino Kotaki said. “She’s willing to try something new and different. She’s a positive burst of energy.”
Ulu played at Keaau her first two years. Then she sat out last season — a tough challenge for the volleyball enthusiast — making her finally eligible for the Vikings, who finished as the BIIF runner-up last season.
“It was frustrating sitting last season,” Ulu said. “I love volleyball and have fit in good with the team. They’re really nice. They’re like my sisters. We bond well together.”
Team chemistry is nice, but a block that works hard to close holes, and a back row that can blanket the floor will also be helpful against the Warriors. They hammer rockets from the outside posts, featuring a trio of hard hitters in Shae Kanakaole, Kaiulani Ahuna and Jeyci Kaili.
If setter Acacia Kaaa is fed clean passes, she’ll have the Vikings running from pin to pin while trying to put up a block and funnel any leaks to a waiting backline of defenders.
“The girls are excited to play on Saturday, more so against Kamehameha,” Kotaki said. “It’s not necessarily the wins and losses we’re looking at, but how well the team sticks together, how well they play with each other and if each girl does her job.”
If that sounds like coach-speak — you know from the old, “Take it one game at time” sort of routine — it’s really not.
Kotaki has a sharp memory. She remembers last season the Viks took down the Warriors twice. But for the match that really counted, Kamehameha beat Hilo for its second straight BIIF championship. Hilo’s last league crown was way back in 2001.
“I like the versatility of the girls,” Kotaki said. “If one girl is not doing well hitting, we can switch her to the middle to block. It keeps our opponents on their toes. We have to put up a big block and make sure we throw our diggers around in the back. We’ve been working on our block and playing defense.
“Our goal is the BIIF title and states. I think we can do better than last year. The girls are little more mature and more ready this year.”
Kawehi Granito-Wallace, who was at Waiakea last season, moved back into the Hilo district and will be another handy addition. However, the senior middle is recovering from a knee injury and will likely miss today’s match.
Another Waiakea transfer is sophomore outside hitter Tiani Teanio. The Vikings are counting on her to shore up the defense, serve tough and pass balls to ignite the offense.
Outside hitter Amanda Loeffler can take swings from any spot on the floor. The 5-10 junior is usually on the right side, where she’ll defend the 5-8 high-jumping Kanakaole and the 5-9 versatile Ahuna, who has a full-package of shots.
The Hilo junior is from the talented Loeffler tree. Her brother is Hawaii offensive lineman Jordan Loeffler. Her cousins are former Waiakea baseball standouts Ronnie and Matt Loeffler, and another cousin is Chynna Loeffler, who’s playing volleyball at Skagit Valley (Wash.) College.
Loeffler and teammate Evalani Toledo, a 5-8 junior outside hitter, spent their summer playing for the USA High-Performance team, which took sixth in the Iowa tourney.
“It’ll be pretty evenly matched against Kamehameha,” Loeffler said. “If our team can stay connected, we’ll have a good chance against them. We need to have timing on our block, close our block and play good defense.”
Toledo, who enjoyed the summer playing against high-caliber competition, echoed Loeffler, pointing out that teamwork is the glue that produces good blocks and results.
“The key is we have to stay on the same page and work together,” she said. “We have to keep fighting for each point. It’s one point at a time.”
The front row has pretty good size with the 5-10 Loeffler and the 5-8 Ulu and Toledo. Leilani Smith, a 5-9 middle who hits lefty, is another front-row weapon. Granito-Wallace will eventually be back.
Hilo also has a pair of 5-6 high jumpers in junior Keala Wilbur-Gabriel and sophomore Shavonne DeMattos to plug holes on the frontline. Angel Alameda, Taylor Alicuben and senior Cheyrub Cabarloc are all key backrow players.
Like newcomer Ulu, Cabarloc believes the team bond of sisterhood will help Hilo, especially when things get tough, like six-point deficits.
“We’re really close and the thing that’s good is we’re all coming together, and picking each other up when we’re down,” she said. “Against Kamehameha, we have to stay together as a team and don’t get frustrated with ourselves. If we do that, we’ll do really good.”