[ OIA GIRLS VOLLEYBALL PREVIEW ]
East favorite likely to emerge early; West improves
Last season, three Oahu Interscholastic Association East teams finished in the top five at the HHSAA Girls Division I State Volleyball Tournament. This year, it seems that the hierarchy hasn't changed.
As the preseason grind of the past few weeks came to a close on Sunday, three teams have proved to be the clear front-runners for the 2006 OIA crown. Like last season, most people are banking on a dogfight among Kahuku, Roosevelt and Moanalua for the league championship. Add to that middle and bottom teams that are considered much improved, and many coaches feel just getting through the OIA East won't be easy.
"Overall, I think Kahuku and Roosevelt are going to be the toughest competition for us," said Moanalua coach Thomas Lake. "Kahuku is solid. They're really game. Traditionally, they've got great athletes, so they're always a team to beat."
And teams won't have to wait long to find out who will be the early favorite. The East season begins tomorrow with the top four teams going head-to-head as Roosevelt takes on Kahuku, while Kalani, considered one of the taller teams in the OIA, travels to Moanalua. Then on Saturday, the Menehunes take on the Rough Riders at home.
"Roosevelt's a really good ball-handling team," Lake said. "I think their ball-handling and smarts are a little superior to us right now. We have a little more power than them. When I look at the matchup between us and Roosevelt, it's really good. It's going to be a really good match."
The Menehunes and Rough Riders, teams that both made it to the semifinals of the Hawaii Invitational last week, have the tools to knock off the two-time defending OIA champion Red Raiders. As always, Roosevelt will rely on a fundamentally sound defense and serving game, as well as a balanced offensive attack, to wear down the competition.
"They look so strong," said Mililani coach Dexter Young, whose Trojans lost to the Rough Riders in the preseason. "Their service game is what kills us. We can scrap with them, and we can hit with them, but they always serve us so tough that it's hard to get into system."
After a long preseason of trying to insert someone to run their potent offense, the Menehunes have found a steady setter in sophomore Kaylee Ponce. Also an offensive threat, Ponce is being relied upon to set up All-State outside hitter Kaleinani Kabalis and fellow first-team OIA East All-Star Briana Amian.
"We've got four people who are hitting the ball really well," Lake said, referring also to senior Melanie Manutai and junior Sarah Robinson. "So one of the most important things for us is just to get a hittable set. Kaylee is putting up a pretty good ball right now."
But coaches in the East know they can't look past even the poorest of teams from last season.
"The big names, Moanalua, Kahuku, they always have a good program," first-year Castle head coach Brannan Bajet said. "But everybody's beatable."
The Knights, the only girls team to not have a single player named an OIA All-Star last season, look to improve on last year's dismal 0-12 regular season.
"The majority of them changed a lot during the summertime," said Bajet, who served as an assistant coach with the Knights for the past four seasons before taking over for his father, Vincent, this season. "Attitude-wise they feel they have something to accomplish this year compared to last year's team.
"We are the smallest team. But size doesn't matter to us."
Lake said he was impressed by Farrington's athleticism and scrappiness, while Young felt McKinley had improved greatly from last season, when his Trojans knocked the Tigers out of the playoffs.
Even after getting through a tough East Division, the top teams must also contend with emerging programs from the West Division. With a strong showing against Kahuku and Moanalua in the preseason, Young is cautiously optimistic.
"We're very comfortable in our ability to compete with the best teams from the East side," Young said.
"Everybody's kind of bunched up in a little group where anyone can beat the other one on just any given day," Aiea coach Blythe Yamamoto said of the West. "But if I had to pick a front-runner, I would have to say Mililani just because they return most of their kids. Experience-wise, they probably have the edge on everybody."
But with the decisions of OIA All-Star Marisa Wiedeman and Chantel Tanuvasa not to play volleyball this year, as well as the military transfer of one junior and an ACL injury to the other, the Trojans will have to rely on a handful of experienced seniors and promising sophomores.
"There's a lot of experience coming back, lots of game experience," Young said. "But even with that, there's a big jump from seniors to the rest of the team. We can look to be very young at times and make very young mistakes. It's a balance with the seniors providing the stability and letting the younger people grow."
The Trojans return first-team OIA West outside hitter Jasmine Pratt, as well as second-teamer Tessa Asuega.
Meanwhile, Na Alii also have a senior-heavy lineup, including four returning starters in Brandi Pascual-Aipa, Rachel Purcell, Tasha Johnson and Michelle Shiroma.
"Certainly we look to them to stabilize us, but it doesn't necessarily have to be them to lead us physically," Yamamoto said. "The crazy thing is that the last couple of years we've been centered on one person (first-team All-State outside hitter Leilani Kleman-Maeva, now playing for Nevada). The great thing about this team is it doesn't center on one. Every game it's somebody else who's in control."
Teams also in the mix are Waipahu and Pearl City, which finished second and fourth in the West last year.
"I think Stephanie (Shigemasa) at Pearl City always builds a team that's going to compete," Young said. "Whatever the range of talent, her teams are always going to compete with you, they're never going to let you walk over them."