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Prep Football Preview Special
Prep Football Preview
Game of the Week
Kalani Takase | ScoringLiveMay 15, 2020, 7:57pm
Sat, May 14, 2011 @ Keaau [ 5:00 pm ]
Editor's note: With the cancelation of the spring sports season, each week we will take a look back at a game of significance from the same week of past seasons we've covered. Along with a brief summary of the game itself, we'll review the impact it had on the winning team's season and reflect upon some of the then-seniors who played a part in it.
The title match of the New City Nissan/HHSAA Division I Boys Volleyball State Championships represented the third meeting between Interscholastic League of Honolulu foes Kamehameha and Punahou of the 2011 season.
The 12-team tournament was held on the east side of the Big Island, with matches taking place at both Keaau and Waiakea high schools. It was the last time the state tournament was held off of Oahu and marked the last of 11 times that the Big Island has played host to the event.
Kamehameha, under first-year coach Kainoa Downing, was unseeded in the field as the ILH runner-up and entered the Saturday night final at Keaau with a record of 20-3.
ILH champion Punahou was the top overall seed in the tournament and was seeking a third consecutive state crown and its sixth in seven years. The Buffanblu, who had defeated the Warriors twice over the course of the ILH season, took a perfect 21-0 record into the championship match.
In fact, going into the final the undefeated Buffanblu had dropped just three sets all year — two of them against Kamehameha.
The Warriors swept past Mililani (25-11, 25-22, 25-9), Waiakea (25-18, 25-15, 25-16) and No. 2 seed Moanalua (25-17, 25-13, 25-18) in their first three state tournament matches, while the Buffanblu enjoyed a first-round bye before making quick work of Pearl City (25-16, 25-14, 25-17) and Kamehameha-Hawaii (25-20, 25-16, 25-20) to reach the final.
The opening set saw 10 ties — the last coming at 18-all — and the lead change hands five times. Micah Christenson put Kamehameha ahead for good with his seventh of eight kills in the set, which gave his team a 19-18 advantage. A kill by Punahou's Larry Tuileta cut the Warriors' lead to 24-23, but Rhett Kane put down his only kill of game 1 on set point.
The Buffanblu held a 7-5 lead early in game 2, but the Warriors stormed back with a 10-3 run that included six errors (of either the ball-handling or attack variety) to pull ahead, 15-10. Punahou closed to within 19-16 after a Kamehameha service error, but was unable to catch up and Savili Bartley's kill off an assist from Elijah Aiona closed out the second set.
Game 3 was a tightly-contested, back-and-forth affair with no more than two points of separation between the teams at any time. A Punahou service error tied it at 22 and Kamehameha took the lead for good on the very next play, when Christenson put away a kill off a Daylan Chock set. The Buffanblu called their second and final timeout of the set at that point, but Cullen Mosher's kill gave Kamehameha championship point. After a kill by Tuileta to make the score 24-23, Christenson recorded his 22nd kill of the match to end it.
"It was tough. I mean, Punahou had us, but we hung in there and we just tried to do what we were doing good at," Downing recalled.
Christenson, listed as a 6-foot-6 senior outside hitter/opposite/setter, finished with 22 kills and no errors on 44 total swings (.500 hitting percentage).
That certainly wasn't by chance, Downing stated.
"We tried to spread the offense out throughout most of the match, but when it came down to what everybody calls ‘end game,' from 20-on, if nobody in the gym knew it, they weren't watching the game, but we were going one way and I didn't care where the ball was — if we set him on the 15-foot line, if we set him on the 20-foot line, he knew where to go with that and he didn't try to kill a non-perfect set, but would place it in a great location to put them in a not positive place — so when it got to 20-and-up, end game, we went to Micah," Downing said.
Downing said the team worked on an alternate strategy throughout the season and didn't utilize it until the state tournament.
"We created a system that we were gonna use at states," he said. "We were gonna isolate Micah and make sure that he was in the middle of the court for six rotations so that he would pass the majority of the balls and we could get a good pass," Downing said.
The numbers certainly back up Downing's train of thought. Kamehameha was a perfect 61-of-61 on serve-receive, with Christenson recording 34 of those passes.
"Micah pretty much passed everything," Downing said.
The Warriors hit .350 as a team to the Buffanblu's .330 kill percentage. They also posted 8 1/2 total team blocks to four for Punahou.
Aiona posted 36 assists in the win.
"Elijah Aiona was doing a pretty good job of distributing sets and that was our focus," said Downing, who recalled all too clearly just how talented a roster the Buffanblu possessed.
"We got smoked the whole year by them. I think we challenged them a little bit, but they pretty much had our number," Downing said. "I mean, they were rolling. They had Micah (Maa), they had (Tuileta), they had Ben Lam, they had (Sean) Gruebner, so they were stacked. I had a good team though and we had practiced that (different lineup) all year but never broke it out until states. We knew in the finals that we were gonna move the lineup however we had to: stack one side and get it so that Micah was passing the ball first in the final match."
Downing also pointed out another key factor in the upset: seldom-used middle blocker Savili Bartley.
"(Punahou middle) Ben Lam was a beast. That guy was just a man child," Downing recalled. "But Savili being a football player, he didn't care. I mean, he probably only stopped him 25 percent of the time maybe, but he didn't let Ben over-man us, because he could. Ben was so physically strong and his game face and his game demeanor were so strong that he could just dominate most people out there. … But Savili kind of got to him a little bit and that helped us because I don't think we could have stopped Ben; that guy was just a beast. We took a shot at it in states of bringing Savili in a lot more because I needed somebody to take care of Ben Lam."
The sweep by Kamehameha in the championship match secured the program's first state title in nine years — since it captured back-to-back crowns in 2001-'02 — and its fifth overall.
Christenson, who also led the Warriors to the D1 state basketball championship a few months prior, was selected as the tournament's most outstanding player. He was joined on the all-tournament team by Aiona and Mosher.
After back-to-back losses against Iolani and Punahou in a four-day stretch in late April-early May, Kamehameha closed out the 2011 season by winning its final six matches to finish with an overall record of 21-3 (17-3 ILH).
The Buffanblu ended the season with a 21-1 mark (19-0).
Christenson earned league Player of the Year honors in all-star voting conducted by the ILH coaches. Chock and Aiona also represented the Warriors on the All-ILH first team, while Bissen garnered second team recognition.
"Because they were such a bonded group of boys, it took care of any deficiencies. The biggest of negatives was nothing, whereas with some teams the negatives can creep up to a high percentage that affects you negatively, so anything that wasn't perfect was nothing to them," Downing said. "We never harped on the negatives and that's where these boys were so good with it and I think that's the key with team sports: believing in each other, supporting each other and not worrying that I'm not a starter."
Downing reflected upon his 2011 team roster.
Micah Christenson: "He's not bad, huh? Top five setter in the world, number one in the U.S. … Perfect work ethics, that's why he is where he is. He was a quiet leader, but totally supportive of his teammates. I did some crazy stuff like when we did something wrong I punished Micah, because I knew he could handle it. So if there were extra laps to run, I made him do it and he never said a thing about it and the team responded to seeing our best player taking the punishment and it was about the camaraderie of the team that made the team better. This team bonded really well and Micah was the leader that made it all happen. When we ran he could have been the first guy by a mile, but he made sure that the last guy passed the time that was required; He was right there and that was the true leadership of that boy."
Elijah Aiona: "He did a super good job all year setting the offense for us. He really listened and learned what system we were wanting to run, of who to set, when to set. He had great location and was a great distributor."
Daylan Chock: "Just a super athlete. Coulda been the setter. Jumped out of the gym, had some big plays, blocks and hits. He was my OH2 — of course, Micah was my OH1 — but he was key throughout the whole year. We were almost never out of system because we had Micah, Daylan, Elijah — we pretty much had four setters out there, so any time there was a bad pass, anyone could put up a good out-of-system set and I think that was one of the biggest keys."
Shaun Bissen: "He was just the silent kid that just did his job. He made some clutch digs, too. Another hard worker that did his part on the team."
Kalei Kaaiai: "He was out starting middle blocker all year, but slowly Savili (Bartley) came about to knock him out. He was a tall middle blocker and did a great job for us all year, but when it came to Ben Lam, Savili was the man. Savili played sparingly through the year, but when it came to Ben Lam, he stepped up and manned-up to the man-beast and took over Kalei's spot. Kalei was a good player, good all-around player, good ball-handling skills, he connected well with the setter all year, but the only difference was Savili and Ben Lam."
Cullen Mosher: "He was my second middle and just an awesome, awesome kid and fantastic player. He went on to Grand Canyon University and played as a middle and outside there. A great athlete and a hard worker."
Kamuela Grugier-Hill: "All-around athlete. I think his best sport at the time was soccer — he was a stud in soccer — and that's why when the (Philadelphia) Eagles' kicker went down, Kamu actually did kickoffs for them and bombed it. That's a beast of a kid. He could jump out of the gym and pound the ball. He didn't really ever play the game, but I was into athletes and I figured if I was any decent of a coach, I could coach an athlete and teach them the game, but he played for us and started the next year."
Max Castanera: "Max was our third middle blocker. He came in in a spot-role for us and filled in spots, but another great, hard worker and a complete team player that did his part when called upon."
Savili Bartley: "He went on to Southern Iowa to play D3 football and volleyball."
Iokepa Command: "He's from Kona. I almost cut him. In fact, I cut him and I forget if Micah or something came up and said, ‘hey coach, he's been with the program, can we keep him?' and most of the year he was shaky — he made some good plays here and there — but he did a pretty solid job. He was more of a (defensive specialist) and I think he came in and gave us a couple good serves, a couple good safety digs; once again, we needed them to play their parts and he played his part."
Rhett Kane: "Did his job as a middle blocker, was a total team player and had some key plays for us in the (state) finals."
Michael Morgan: "He was one of those players that if somebody stumbled real bad, I could put him in and count on him to do a job. He was a hard worker and he was the clown of the team, but whenever I needed somebody to step in because somebody wasn't on or something was off, I'd put him in and he would do something, any position.
R. Matthew Heirakuji: "Great kid. Worked hard. I think he was a starter the year before, but took it in stride to stay with the team and be a part of the team and contribute whenever he could and he did a good job at that."
Jared Puna Kaniho: "He became our starting setter the next two years and went on to Grand Canyon University. He's a great athlete, good hands and he became a good D1 college setter."
Chris Garcia: "He was a good (defensive specialist) for us and an awesome teammate. He played for us the next year, but was just a good, hard worker."
The Warriors' bid for a second straight state title were dashed with a quarterfinal-round loss to third-seeded Kamehameha in the 2012 tournament. They went on to finish sixth that season, but returned to the championship match in 2013.
Downing finished up his five-year run as coach of his alma mater in 2016 and has served as the girls' coach at Kaiser for the past three seasons.
"I had hoped that what this team showed the other kids was the importance of the team bonding, playing as a team and the work ethic that it took," Downing said. "I was hoping that it would carry on. Cullen and Puna tried their best to make it happen the next two years, but we had lost that ultimate leader in Micah. It's a tangible that is needed and it's kind of unseen and unheard, but if you need that one ultimate leader that's organized and keeps everybody together through the tough times and we didn't really have that. Every team needs that leader to make the team better."
Christenson went on to put together a brilliant collegiate career at Southern California, where he earned American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American honors in both his junior and senior seasons. He continued his playing career professionally in Europe and also helped the United States to a bronze medal in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
While both Mosher and Kaniho also played collegiate volleyball — both at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix — another member of the 2011 Kamehameha team went on to gain notoriety in another sport. Grugier-Hill played college football at Eastern Illinois before being drafted by the New England Patriots in 2016. He won a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 and in March he signed a one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins for the upcoming NFL season.
Kamehameha's championship in 2011 was the last time that Punahou failed to win the state title. The Buffanblu have won eight straight crowns and own 37 total state championships in program history.
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