LIHUE — When a group of local boys banded together to take on what was certainly bigger and better competition on the Mainland, they did so wanting to make a name for themselves.
They’ve done better than they thought they would.
“Exceeded expectations by far,” said coach Kapule Kaona. “I didn’t know what to expect or how do we prepare for something like that. Coming back from it, (they) definitely exceeded expectations. … As far as size, we didn’t fare even close to the other teams. But let me tell you, our boys definitely belonged there.”
Youth volleyball team TAVA Hawaii placed third in the 17 club division (ages 17-and-under club teams) at the USA Volleyball Boys Junior National Championships in Phoenix, Ariz.
The tournament ended Monday, and the team returned to Kauai on Tuesday.
The team finished the tournament with a 10-2 record and defeated a club from Miami to place third in a division of about 50 teams.
“It was a great trip. We did better than anyone ever expected,” said setter Rusdan-Rocket Ahuna, an upcoming senior at Kapaa High School. “We played our hearts out. We got a lot of exposure.”
The team is comprised of players from Kapaa, Kauai and Waimea high schools as well as one local who attends Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama on Oahu.
The idea of forming an all-Kauai team to compete at nationals was spearheaded by Ahuna.
“I was excited because I really wanted to go play against higher competition,” defensive specialist Shayne Simbre-Medeiros, an upcoming senior at Waimea High School, said about teaming up with players from the other schools. “When Rocket texted us that he made us a team, I was excited. We all were excited.”
Simbre-Medeiros added the tournament grew more difficult as it went on and more games were being played.
“It was different for all of us. We’ve never went to a tournament, and the first day, we went 3-0. We were excited,” he said. “The second day was a little harder, but we still managed to get some wins. We played five games that day, and we dropped. That was the only downfall. We dropped from gold to bronze brackets. In the end, we took bronze. So, it was a win.”
The all-Kauai team practiced together for about six weeks and played against some teams who have been together for years. This is the first time the team has competed at the national tournament.
Considering their short time together, inexperience at nationals and not having a large group, Kaona — who’s also the varsity boys volleyball head coach at Kapaa High School — didn’t expect the team to do as well as they did.
“I honestly expected them to be in the bottom half. Our of all the teams, I expected the team to fall in the bottom half,” he said. “Losses at critical times dropped us down to the bronze (bracket). We were playing for the bronze. But with that being said, a lot of teams said, ‘What are you doing here. You do not belong.’ We were probably by far one of the smallest teams in that division. We’re very happy and excited for the results that we got.
“These eight, nine boys from Kauai — a small island. Everybody was shocked and surprised by that,” Kaona continued.
In addition to playing against unfamiliar competition, playing at the tournament was a chance to catch the attention of college recruiters.
“Interacting with them, it was a new experience,” said Ahuna, who said he talked with about 10 coaches. “It’s something you don’t really do coming from Kauai. They don’t really come here. You just have to learn and, kind of, mark yourself as a player to hopefully play for that school.”
With their first tournament in the books, Kaona is hoping to take another all-Kauai team to nationals next year.
“Outside of volleyball, the boys were great ambassadors of aloha and great ambassadors for the state of Hawaii,” Kaona said. “We’ve gotten a lot of compliments from referees, coaches and other teams just complementing us as coaches, our club and every boy individually for great sportsmanship, for how much aloha they have for each other as well as the other teams. That was probably one of the biggest takeaways.”
Nick Celario, sports writer, can be reached at 245-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.