The Haili Volleyball Tournament has been around so long it has become the state’s own major, the equivalent to the Masters in golfing capital Augusta, Ga., where tradition meets history.
It’s sort of the same thing at the 57th edition of the Haili, where the locals know that championship history at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium is like no other.
“For the kids growing up and playing volleyball, Haili is the biggest tournament in Hawaii and winning that one is more significant,” said Pilipaa girls club coach Chris Leonard, whose 17 and 18 age-group teams are entered. “It’s like a golf’s fifth major or in our case the first major. Haili has that prestige and adds an extra level to work hard. It means more to our kids.”
Last year, Pilipaa won the 16s and 18s divisions. His 17s group, led by Kamehameha’s Kaiu Ahuna and Zoe Leonard, has won a string of Haili titles going up the age-group ranks.
Leonard also has a bit of Haili history. It’ll be his 27th year playing in the tourney. He was also on the Big Island Roots team that unofficially won the men’s AA crown in 2009, when the Haili was at its popularity peak with a record 187 teams entered.
However, there are only 113 teams this time. The drop-off is attributed to the USA open national championships, for the adult divisions, which will be held in May in Arizona.
Still, there’s usually something exciting going on at the Haili. Besides, where else can a diehard fan watch the state’s best NCAA Division I and II teams battle each other, and on the same day figure out a phantom point?
That’s what happened in 2009.
In arguably the most anticipated matchup in Haili’s history, the women’s AA final featured the Rusty Wahine, led by 2003 St. Joseph graduate Sarah Mason, and the Hilo VBC Vulcans, led by Josimara Pinheiro and Fabiane Seben.
Pinheiro and Seben were two of UH-Hilo’s most popular and dominant players in the program’s history. They brought a sizable fan base, as did Mason, the hometown girl. But a lot of fans also came to see other Rainbow Wahine players like Jennifer Carey, Elizabeth Kaaihue, and Hedder Illustre.
The only disappointment was that the hometown team got overwhelmed, 26-24, 25-17. The visiting Rusty Wahine displayed the type of athleticism, especially from Mason, and ball-control, especially from Kaaihue, that Hilo VBC couldn’t counter, highlighting the difference between the Division I Rainbow Wahine and Division II Vulcans.
In Haili’s long history, no Big Island team has ever captured the men’s AA title. In the 52nd edition, Big Island Roots led 14-9 in the last set over Kailua VBC, a squad stacked with former UH players.
Roots hit wide and the score was tied 14-14. But the scoreboard showed Kailua ahead 15-14. The Oahu team won 25-22, 23-25, 19-17.
Kailua has pocketed the AA championship almost every year from 2004 to last year; the club declined to enter in 2012. That year, Hemolele, a Hilo team consisting of players from Big Island Roots and Oahu’s Quiksets, beat RZN, another team with Big Islanders, 25-23, 25-23.
If the women’s AA final in 2009 wasn’t the biggest show, then the next year was. UH VBC, with Kanani Danielson, Brittany Hewitt, Dani Mafua and Kaaihue, was coming off a 32-3 season and loss to Penn State in the NCAA tournament semifinals.
In early 2010, Danielson needed a tuneup before entering her UH junior season. She took apart the Rusty Wahine’s block at the Haili final, blasted 23 kills and her Wahine won 26-28, 25-15, 15-8 in front of a jam-packed Hilo Civic crowd.
Major No. 1
If there were a volleyball major like the Masters, it would be the 35th annual USA Volleyball junior national championships, which will be held June 29-July 2 in Minnesota and draws hundreds of college recruiters.
The tournament crowns 19 champions in age divisions ranging from 12 to 18 years old. The event showcases the top talent from across the nation.
Hoopa, a Kailua-Kona club coached by Ainsley Keawekane, defeated Hilo’s Pilipaa in three sets in the 18-and-under regional qualifier and will represent Moku O Keawe Region in the club division.
The club or national division is a smaller pond than the open division, where teams go to qualifiers against the country’s most competitive teams. Last year, Pilipaa was the Big Island’s representative at the club level.
Keawekane is the Konawaena coach and several players are on his 17s club team: Chanelle and Celena Molina, McKenna Ventura and his daughter Haena Keawekane. Other club members are Gabby Ewing and Carina Verhulsdonk, Hawaii Prep; Kyra Calbero, Rashai Kailiwai and Dineken Pagofie-Buten, Kealakehe; and Karissa Komo, Makua Lani.
Hoopa’s national-qualifying squad has won Haili titles in the 15, 16, 17 age group. That team won’t play in the Haili. Instead, Keawekane is bringing over his 12-and-under girls.
“Prior to his upcoming tournament, our older girls team was coming over to the Haili every year,” he said. “We’d usually enter the older girls against the women to get experience. You don’t gain valuable experience playing other teams your own caliber. That helped prepare us a lot as well.”
Major No. 2
If there were a volleyball major right behind the Masters, it would be the Las Vegas Classic, which runs in February and remains a recruiting hotbed for colleges on every level, from Division I, II, II, NAIA to junior colleges.
Last month, the Pilipaa 17s finished fifth out of 142 teams. The 18s, led by Toni Beck and Kamalani Fujikawa from Ka‘u High and Kamehameha’s Cashman Aiu and Anuhea Leite-Ah Yo, placed 47th out of 212 clubs.
Leonard is taking his 17s club to the 41st annual AAU junior national championships, which will be held in June in Florida. Like USA Volleyball nationals, there are different divisions; the open is the highest and most competitive level.
“At the Las Vegas Classic, there are tons of college scouts. It’s a good opportunity for the girls to get seen,” Leonard said. “They also have an unsigned senior showcase. You have coaches from all over the place, UCLA, Penn State, top tier Division I programs to everything in between.
“The AAU is heavily scouted as well. The AAU has been around a long time. It doesn’t have the same footprint in Hawaii. We sent a team two years ago, with Shae Kanakaole and Acacia Kaaa. We’d like to go to both (AAU and Las Vegas) if we can, but the cost of travel is so significant.”
Asked his take on the best competition at either USA Volleyball, Las Vegas or AAU, Leonard pointed out that the country’s best club teams are usually all over the place.
On a much smaller scale, Kailua remains the team to beat at Haili. The Oahu club is the defending men’s AA champion.
Hi Intensity, the club team of UHH Hall of Famer Carla Carpenter-Kabalis, is the women’s AA reigning champ. Her three daughters, Kahala, Kaleinani and Kuulei, played on the squad.
Last year’s Haili was memorable for the conclusion when coordinator Lyndell Lindsey was honored for her continuing work of the tourney, started by her father Tommy Lindsey, Kihei Brown, Albert Nahale-a and Arnold Nathaniel.
Many of the volunteers and players wore pink T-shirts to symbolize her fight against breast cancer, an opponent Lindsey has beaten twice.
Earlier in the day, she had completed her 50th year playing in the Haili, missing only one year with a broken leg. She was part of a women’s masters 45 team that won the title.
Back in the day, Lindsey and her sister Sweetie Osorio were on UHH’s national championship team in 1979. Both made the all-tournament’s second team.
Lindsey and her family have participated in the tradition-rich Haili tournament for close to six decades. A year ago, she neatly summed up what the event has meant to her.
“Volleyball has been a major part of my life and the Haili tournament has been a blessing for all of us,” she said.