Lucky and blessed are two words that Christian Liberty boys volleyball coach Gary Oertel reminds his team about everyday. Not every Big Island school, after all, was practicing Monday and gearing up for its long-awaited return to competition.
At the same time, it’d be fair if the Canefire felt burned as well.
Windows of athletic opportunity at the small Keaau private school — 12 of the 18 boys in grades 9-12 play volleyball — don’t last forever, and the pandemic slammed the door shut on a pair of potential BIIF Division II contending teams.
“I feel very bad for (senior) Josh Rushton,” Oertel said of his all-BIIF performer, “but we’re going to make the most of it.”
Two seasons ago after a win at Old Mill Fieldhouse that was spearheaded by Rushton and then-freshman Jerry Becker, he looked forward to the Canefire jelling around the two middle blockers the next two seasons. Christian Liberty grabbed a No. 3 seed in the playoffs, reached the semifinals then hit the ground running last season seeking the program’s first HHSAA tournament berth.
Then fate took its course.
“They are definitely two solid players, and we were heartbroken when the season was canceled,” Oertel said. “We were doing well and feeling very confident.”
The Canefire also had precedent on its side after watching Makua Lani, a small private school in West Hawaii, make an impromptu run to its first BIIF title in 2019.
“That had made it one of our goals,” Oertel said. “We would have had to get by HPA and Makua Lani, but after getting to the semifinals, we at least wanted to get to the final.”
Championships aren’t in play, but Rushton and senior setter Caleb Watkins will have more matches to show for their last two years of high school.
The goals, naturally, have changed this year as much as the landscape as the Canefire embark on a makeshift BIIF season that begins Tuesday night at Hawaii Prep. Private schools Kamehameha, which hosts Christian Liberty on Thursday, and Parker are also participating, as well as one public school, Pahoa. Fans are not allowed at games due to coronavirus protocols. While the HHSAA has yet to make an official determination on its spring state tournaments, they appear unlikely to be scheduled.
The Canefire have spent three weeks working on conditioning — “Some more than others,” the coach said — fundamentals and simply getting used to touching the ball again. Becker and junior outside hitter Adam Sako offer promise for next season.
“Our middles aren’t the tallest players, but they are leapers,” Oertel said. “We want to be competitive in every match we play. We might not be able to beat Kamehameha, but we’d love to be able to make them work to beat us.”
HPA is perennial contender in boys and girls volleyball under Sharon Peterson, last winning a boys D-II title in 2018. Since the girls campaign was canceled in the fall, she’s fielding a coed team that features three girls, including setter Malia Camero. She’ll see playing time in a 6-2 system along with setter Bear Wawner.
“We have so many seniors, so I wouldn’t say this is about development,” Peterson said. “My whole thing is that they get to play. We had four matches last year and the team was doing so well. This year, I’m so happy.”
Practices have been ongoing for about a month, though spring break through a wrench in the plans. One of Peterson’s goals is to keep everyone involved. The nucleus of the team includes outside hitter Kama Liu, opposite’s KJ Walker and Bennett Varnay, and Tre Walker in the backcourt.
“This year, with no championships, it’s so different, I want to make sure I do a good job getting everybody in,” she said.
Christian Liberty and HPA play at 5 p.m., with a junior varsity match between Kamehameha and Ka Makani to follow.
Also on Tuesday, Makua Lani visits HPA in a 3 p.m. tennis match.