By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
HONOLULU — Gabbie Ewing put the offensive load on her back, knocking down 27 kills and pushing Hawaii Prep into more milestone territory at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II girls volleyball state championships.
Playing with a veteran’s poise, HPA defeated Saint Francis 25-18, 25-21, 25-20 in the semifinals Thursday night at McKinley High’s gym, reaching the championship for the first time at the Division II state tourney.
It’s the farthest HPA has advanced during its eight-year run at states. Last year, the small private school in Waimea won its opening match for the first time, beating Hawaii Baptist in the first round.
The Big Island Interscholastic Federation champion Ka Makani (15-3) will play for the state championship at 7 p.m. today at McKinley against either BIIF runner-up Konawaena.
“I loved the spirit we had,” HPA coach Sharon Peterson said. “It’s the Navy Seal motto: All in, all the time. It was not just the girls on the court, but the girls on the bench, too. We were more relaxed than Wednesday night. We flowed better and had more rhythm.
“Gabbie plays with heart and the team feeds off that. I never would have guessed this. The kids stayed mentally strong. I’m thrilled we’re in the championship.”
While Ewing, a 5-foot-7 junior outside hitter, took most of the swings, showing her range of shots (roll, line, cross-court and off-the-block), HPA gathered enough offense from its other big gun to keep the Saints on their toes.
Senior Tiana Reynolds, Ewing’s 5-9 outside hitting partner, added eight kills and middle blocker Seychelle Francis had three kills for all of HPA’s 38 kills — the same total as the Saints, the Interscholastic League of Honolulu’s No. 3 team.
The two-time defending state champion Saints (15-4) lost their best player from last year in Angel Savea, who smashed 21 kills against Seabury Hall in the state title game.
But the difference was unforced errors (hitting, serving). HPA had just 20 giveaway points; Saint Francis had 32 unforced errors, stepping on their toes time and again.
“We’re small and mighty,” Saint Francis coach Sonja Samsonas said. “That’s definitely key, also our serving and defense. We like to have long rallies and let our opponent make the errors.”
The Saints got fed a dose of their own medicine.
Sierra Esperas led Saint Francis with 10 kills while Malia Luis-Mateo had nine and Alyssa Panis contributed eight kills. Esperas offers most of the height. The middle blocker is 5-10 while the two outside hitters stand just 5-4.
In the first set, Ewing put the offense on her back, drilling nine kills. Also quite helpful was errant Saint hitting. The Oahu team had 12 hitting errors; the efficient Ka Makani had only four hitting miscues.
Down 15-11 in the second set, HPA reeled off an eight-point run to leapfrog the Saints for a 19-15 lead. The Saints were their own worst enemy, giving away four points during that scoring spree.
From there, Ewing put down three of her seven kills and a Saint service error closed the set.
In the third set, HPA led 22-20 and Ewing smashed the final three points, displaying her favorite weapons: tool shot off the block, a cross-court bullet through a seam, and a finishing curveball around another double block.
HPA achieved its second biggest win in school history against Roosevelt in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night, winning in five sets behind a production company of Ewing (24 kills, 18 digs), Reynolds (16 kills, six digs) and libero Kawena Lim-Samura (19 digs).
“Instead of depending on one or two players, everyone has stepped up and taken a leadership role,” said Ewing, whose first sport is soccer. “We all talk to each other and take criticism well to get better. My thought going into the quarterfinals was we’re not going to be the same team next year, it’s our last chance, so we might as well put it all out there.
“I played really smart. I was looking for open spots and put the ball down without them (Roosevelt) getting there. Our team bonds really well. We get along and are a close-knit team. We’re like family, all sisters.”
Ewing first played soccer as a 6-year-old and picked up volleyball three years later. She’s on the Lanakila soccer club team, run by Makua Lani coach John Edwards, which plays in a few mainland tourneys during the summer. She’s also a guest player on the Honolulu Bulls, Oahu’s premier club team.
Her second sport also keeps her busy. Ewing also plays on Konawaena coach Ainsley Keawekane’s Hoopa club team, which includes Ka Makani teammate Carina Verhulsdonk, and several Wildcats, including Chanelle and Celina Molina, Kaela Avanilla and Makani Wall.
HPA’s milestone state march has produced nothing but memorable moments for Ewing, who had double All-BIIF honors last year as a sophomore. She landed on the first team at outside hitter, and on the soccer team earned the same recognition at midfield.
“I’m really proud of our team,” she said. “As long as we play hard, we can be proud of ourselves. I’m happy we made it this far, and it’s been a great experience.”