PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Aiea volleyball team looks up to senior Lelani Kleman-Maeva and expects her to lead it deep into the state volleyball tournament.
Aiea builds on Lelani Kleman-Maeva's leadership to reach the state tourney
EARLY in the season, the look on Blythe Yamamoto's face was one of bewilderment.
The Aiea girls volleyball coach knew she and her staff had their work cut out thanks to a team that lacked experience and height.
Late in the season, Yamamoto's bewilderment turned to amusement and, as of this week, satisfaction. With just two seniors, Aiea qualified for the Oahu Interscholastic Association playoffs and earned a state tournament berth by sweeping Mililani on Saturday. An 11-3 season doesn't quite explain how Na Alii had to build on the foundation of their super-talented senior, Lelani Kleman-Maeva, and her willingness to lead.
Kleman-Maeva, a legit 5-foot-11 with tremendous power, had the benefit of playing with experienced teammates last year. But with leaders like Konae Purcell lost to graduation, Kleman-Maeva ascended whether she was ready.
Fortunately for Aiea, she was more than ready, at least in the eyes of the team's lone freshman, Michelle Lambayan.
"Lelani is like a really good all-around player. Every day she helps all her teammates when they're down. She really loves the sport, and everyone can tell," said Lambayan, a setter who hadn't seen anyone quite like Kleman-Maeva in 14-under club ball.
"My first reaction was, 'Wow!' I mean, I was scared at first, but then I realized I shouldn't be afraid because I'm on her team, not playing against her," Lambayan said.
Nevada, Fresno State and Pacific offered scholarships to Kleman-Maeva, while Hawaii, USC and Nebraska showed interest. Kleman-Maeva chose Nevada, even if it means being away from mom (Jane) and dad (Kepi).
"I went for a visit and I really liked it. The school isn't too big or too small, it's just right," said Kleman-Maeva, who may major in criminal justice. "It just felt right over there."
The outside hitter plays in the offseason for Quicksets Volleyball Club under Kent Ma. That means lots of conditioning and training, no excuses. She can touch 9 feet, 11 inches -- one inch shy of a basketball rim.
"Lelani is at a level I haven't seen any other players hit, but the sky's the limit once she goes to college," Yamamoto said. "She's only really been playing for three years. Other girls have played six, seven years and they've peaked. Lelani is hitting her stride now."
With all of her feats and aspirations, Kleman-Maeva sees herself simply as a cog in the machine at Aiea.
"We're together as a team. Coach told me I'm gonna have to lead the team and be a role model to them. Don't get mad at them and just do my role," Kleman-Maeva recalled. "There's only so much you can do. When you know you've accomplished your job, everything will fall into place."
Yamamoto got precisely what she wanted from her seasoned leader.
"For the most part, this team really has her stamp on it," the 10th-year head coach said.
The team-first mentality emanates from Yamamoto and her staff through a series of team-building exercises, but more so through a spirit of unity.
"I felt nervous at first, but like, during the summer I started working with the team. They didn't treat me like a freshman," Lambayan said.
In fact, shortly into the regular season, Kleman-Maeva had a good feeling about this young group.
"Everyone was doing their part. After our first two games, that's when I started to feel like we were less uptight," she said.
The key contributors are all underclassmen, from sophomore setter Tati Burgos to hitter Rachel Lee, a junior, and middle Brandi Pascua-Aipa. Tasha Johnson, a junior, is the hub of passing and defense, and the team will get a jolt from Sasha Andrade, who is healed up from a softball injury to her hand.
Much to their surprise, Na Alii won their first six league games. Then came consecutive losses that knocked the wind from their sails.
"The girls' fortitude has been unbelievable. They refuse to stay down," Yamamoto said. "When we lost to Mililani and Pearl City, that was a real turning point. We were in a tailspin. We had Waipahu, PC, Leilehua and Nanakuli; the last three were back-to-back-to-back days."
Instead of floundering due to inexperience and lost confidence, Aiea rebounded.
"They hung in there together. It shows the strength this team has," Yamamoto said.
Aiea went on to win its final four matches in OIA West play. Then came the playoffs on Saturday and a difficult 26-28, 25-17, 30-28 loss to Kalani. Kleman-Maeva pounded 25 kills in defeat, but neither she nor her teammates had time to dwell on the loss.
Moments later, they stepped back on the floor to play Mililani in an elimination match. Kleman-Maeva finished with 12 kills as Aiea won 25-20, 25-19 before a home crowd, clinching a state berth. Aiea's ability to switch gears and regroup in time for the Mililani match were key.
"I wouldn't say it was pressure," Lambayan said. "It just felt like we just had to beat that team. Whatever happened in the first match happened, and we had to just let it go and focus on the next one."
Na Alii have this week to prepare for Saturday's match against either Farrington or Waipahu. Saturday's winner gains the fifth seed from the OIA. The state berth means Yamamoto and her assistant coach, Jodi Tanabe-Hanzawa, will dye their hair green just like last year.
After four years in the program, Kleman-Maeva will finally be on her way to the next level. It's difficult to say who will miss who more.
"Coach Blythe is the best coach with me. She's been there for me every time. I talk to her about everything. We're really close," Kleman-Maeva said. "She's been there for me from the beginning."
Yamamoto has the blessing of watching a talented individual gain maturity.
"It's funny that she says I'm more verbal, but she's the one who says things, and I don't have to say it anymore. During practice, she'll call time out and fix the things we're doing wrong in a drill," she said.
Yamamoto is pleased with the way the season has turned out.
"If you saw us at the beginning of the year, you'd be surprised, too. I think it's gratifying to see the way the kids are responding and maturing," she said. "Everything we're throwing at them, they're responding to."
Kleman-Maeva is just hoping to see her coaches with green hair very soon.
"We already gave them lots of white hairs," she said.