By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kohala is a much better volleyball team with Hana Caravalho in the lineup, relying on the 6-foot middle blocker to be a force at the net, and providing a glue that makes each rotation stronger.
He had other functions to attend during spring break, and the Cowboys lost Big Island Interscholastic Federation games to Honokaa and Hilo without the athletic junior.
Since then, the Cowboys have found the type of team chemistry that propelled them into the four-team BIIF Division II playoffs.
No. 4 seed Kohala (5-7) plays No. 1 Honokaa (7-4) at 2:30 p.m. today at Kealakehe. In the other semifinal, it’s No. 2 Hawaii Prep (6-5) vs. No. 3 Ka‘u (5-6) at 4 p.m.
In the BIIF Division I semifinals, it’s No. 1 Kamehameha (11-0) vs. No. 4 Kealakehe (6-5) at 5:30 p.m. and No. 2 Waiakea (10-1) vs. No. 3 Hilo (9-2) at 7 p.m.
As the BIIF regular-season champions, Honokaa and Kamehameha have already secured spots to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.
If the Cowboys lose, their season is over. If they win, they play in the BIIF championship for a berth to the Division II state tourney.
At least Kohala has a helpful dose of do-or-die experience. The Cowboys defeated Pahoa in five sets to force a playoff tiebreaker game. On Monday at home, Kohala swept the Daggers, the defending BIIF champion.
“We were pretty determined to get that game at Pahoa and force a tiebreaker,” Kohala first-year coach Rodney Goya said. “It’s important for us to stay focused in the playoffs. We’re happy where we’re at.
“It’s been a tale of two seasons with a key player in Hana out. We’ve got four seniors on board, two returning players from last year, and three who have not played a lick of volleyball. But the key is we’ve grown throughout the season.”
Caravalho, who was also a member of Kohala’s BIIF champion basketball team, and senior setter Trenton Lorenzo-Akamu are the returning starters. They offer the most experience and stability.
The outside hitters are a pair of seniors, Pono Giron-Arellano, who’s Goya’s nephew, and Mark Edwards. They provide most of the offensive firepower, and cranked double-digit kills on Monday night.
The other two starting spots are filled by rookies: senior opposite Justice Lewis-Matsu and junior middle Felipe Ruvalcaba. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise with Caravalho out of the lineup.
“When Hana was missing, it gave the inexperienced players a chance to step up, and when Hana came back they had to find out who they were as a team,” Goya said. “The biggest thing is to create unity. That’s always a big thing in volleyball. It’s a unique sport because you can’t rely on only one person, like in basketball for someone to go to the hoop and score. You need at least three people, to pass, set and hit.
“Hana is a huge force at the net. I’d say he’s averaging three or four blocks. Pono has been an offensive threat and Mark has an ability to bring out energy in everyone. Kohala has always had great volleyball teams and players.”
Goya is a 1994 Kohala graduate and now works at the school. He didn’t play volleyball back in the day. He was a team manager for the Cowboys, who won three BIIF titles in a row from 1992 to ‘94.
If basketball is king of sports in the land of the Cowboys, then volleyball is a really close second. Since statewide classification in 2005, Kohala has been to states four out of eight times; it’s five of eight for hoops.
The Cowboys went to states four consecutive times from 2009 to ‘12, capturing a BIIF championships in 2011. During that reign, D.J. Wong and Chris “Popo” Roxburgh were the team’s anchors. They’re now sophomores and playing at Graceland University, an NAIA school in Iowa.
Goya spent the last 11 years in San Diego, where he went to school and worked, and started playing volleyball. Before he left, he coached youth volleyball in his Kapaau hometown. As a school employee, Goya has a stronger daily connection with his players, and it’s paid off.
“There’s been a lot of growth,” he said. “The comments I get from the parents and community is how exciting it is to see kids coming out of the woodwork, who they never thought would play volleyball, bring a lot of talent to the team.
“In the beginning of the season, we subbed Justice in and out. He was not capable of playing the back row. Throughout many practices you could see his potential. He worked really hard to claim and all-around spot in the rotation.
“It was figuring out what they were capable of. They knew they could do it. It was a matter of getting to that point. They’ve finally found themselves as a team.”
Whether there’s been two or three berths to the Division II state tourney, Ka‘u has often been the odd man out.
Take last year for example. The Trojans finished as the league’s No. 3 team and had a state play-in game with Campbell, but lost in five sets.
Ka‘u last reached states in 2005, the first year of statewide classification. Before that, the Trojans made school history with their first state trip in 2002 and returned the next season.
During the regular season, Ka‘u hosted and swept HPA. A repeat gets the Trojans into the BIIF championship and a state berth if Honokaa eliminates Kohala.
“With their coach, Sharon Peterson, I know she’ll prepare for our team and we have to be prepared also,” Ka‘u coach Josh Ortega said. “I’ve known Noah Schenk (HPA’s top outside hitter) since he first started playing volleyball. He’s come a long way. He’s a really good player. He’s a person we need to focus on. For our team, we have to be mentally prepared, get into it, and give it our all.”
Junior outside hitter Kai Enriques has carried the Trojans, who feature two other junior starters in setter Brian Gascon and hitter Anthony Emmsley-Ah Yee. Three seniors round out the lineup: setter Lehre Vidal and middles Larry-Dan Al-Navarro and Chance Emmsley-Ah Yee.
“Kai has been doing pretty good for us, attacking from the back row, serving. He’s versatile,” Ortega said. “Against HPA, he did a good job. Our kids play a lot of sports. We had four on the baseball team, and sometimes we’d have practice with three players. It’s our first week we’ve had our entire team every single practice. That’s kind of how our season went.”