By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
After a decade of waiting, Christian Liberty will finally have a permanent place to call home sweet home.
The Canefire hosted Honokaa in a boys Big Island Interscholastic Federation volleyball match on Wednesday night, debuting their Old Mill Field House on the school’s campus in Keaau.
Christian Liberty has been playing home matches at Wainaku Gym the last couple of years. Previously, coach Gary Oertel and his team traveled here and there, looking for places to practice or use as a temporary home. Hilo Armory, Shipman Gym, Kawananakoa Gym and Andrews Gym were among the tour stops.
It wasn’t always fun, but at least it was memorable, especially the 1998-99 BIIF season season when the Canefire made their volleyball debut. They burned a hole in their wallet driving every inch of the island. (The girls team started a season earlier, but haven’t always fielded a squad.)
“We were put on the schedule with Kealakehe. We had a boys team and they had a girls team. Back then both played in the fall,” Oertel said. “We traveled away to all our home games. We’d joke when we drove by the Old Kona Airport Gym, ‘There’s our home gym.’ The next year we played all over, what was available. We’d go to Mountain View and have practices in the parking lot. That’s not good.”
Oertel estimated the field house’s price was at about $300,000 with fixtures still on deck, such bleachers, retractable baskets from the ceiling, and a scoreboard. Money doesn’t grow on trees, especially for small private schools like Christian Liberty, which fundraised and received donations. The flooring was put in last week, another long-awaited necessary step for the school to host its first BIIF event in the field house.
“It takes time to get money to do things, like the concrete paths and getting the electrical in the building approved,” he said. “We still need a scoreboard and the baskets that extend from the ceiling. We don’t have that yet. That’s another $30,000. It’s one project at a time.”
At least Oertel can take comfort knowing there’s no price tag for creating lasting memories or convenience.
The school has 247 students from preschool to the 12th grade, including 65 in high school. The school’s Christmas program was held in the field house, holding 500 people.
“We could never have done that before,” Oertel said. “The kids are really excited about being to practice on campus. After practice, we can send kids home at a reasonable hour. For the program and the school, people can come in and see it and it’s a great opportunity to sell ourselves. It’ll be really good. It’s a blue and orange theme, of course (the school’s colors). It looks really nice and it’ll be a good atmosphere.”
Oertel has been a physical education teacher at the school for 17 years, a volleyball coach for 13 years and an everyday wishful thinker that he had a roof over his head, especially when Hilo’s rain made an unwelcome visit.
“You know how much it rains in Hilo. We’d have PE classes and train in the mud or find something to do in the classroom,” he said. “Now when it rains, it’s OK. We can go to the gym. It’s really nice as a PE teacher.”
The Canefire are looking to join the BIIF in basketball in the near future. The school is building its basketball program and is talking to private schools like Kamehameha and St. Joe to start an intermediate league, Oertel said.
Maybe the school can start a friendly competition to see what team puts up a BIIF championship banner first. Boys soccer, coached by principal Troy Rimel, is the dominant team, finishing as the BIIF runner-up the last two years and reaching the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state tournament four times in six years.
“We’re pretty strong this year. We went five sets with Konawaena last week, and we lost to Kohala. I felt that was a missed opportunity,” Oertel said. “I think we have the ability to make a run to be contenders for states.”
No surprise, Oertel’s four senior starters — outside hitter Keenan Freitas, middle blockers Keanu Bergfeld and Tim Jittu and setter Ray Crawford — are all from the soccer team. The other starters are junior hitter Kiyoshi Kaili and freshmen Isaac Sutton and Dennis Botehlo split time in the last spot.
“Keenan is probably our strongest hitter. He loves volleyball. That’s his big thing and his passion,” Oertel said. “He’s a great all-around player, handles the ball well, plays great defense. He could play at any position, but he’s a swinger and he loves to swing and hit the ball.”
Crawford enjoys hitting the ball, too. But someone has to be the setter. That job fell to him.
“He’s setting for the first year. Last year, he played outside hitter,” Oertel said. “It’s a little sacrifice and he’s doing it for the team. He gets excited about big plays. When other guys hit well, he’s excited. He’s a team player.”
The Canefire have a bit of height. Bergfeld is 6 feet, 4 inches and everyone scales down by two inches from there; Jittu at 6-2, Freitas and Kaili at 6-0 and Crawford at 5-10.
“Bergfeld was our goalie and he’s a big kid. He plays tough and works hard in the middle. Tim is not as tall, but he’s athletic and is our highest percentage hitter. He gets up and hits the ball,” said Oertel, who campaigned for a gym a long time ago. “It’s been a long, slow process but we finally get to play in the gym. There’s a lot excitement just to be in the gym.”