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Defending champs Bears, Spartans gear up for season

Seabury Hall’s Caelyn Hasegawa (6) and Clara Miller go up to defend a shot by Hana’s Pumehana Helekahi during an MIL match on Nov. 26. The Spartans aim to not only get back to the state tournament this season, but contend for the Division II title. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — Ariana Naipo may be the reigning Maui Interscholastic League Division I Player of the Year for girls volleyball, but Thursday was a different experience for the Baldwin High School standout sophomore.

She was practicing with her Bears’ teammates in early August, marking the first traditional calendar start to an MIL season since 2019.

“I think it’s good that we’re starting earlier now because of COVID last year — it delayed our season a lot — so it’s great to start, especially coming out of club season,” Naipo said during a water break at War Memorial Gym.

The 5-foot-8 outside hitter was standing next to her setter and fellow sophomore, Lilinoe Paschoal — like most of their Baldwin teammates, both are standout members of Hawaiian Style Volleyball Club.

“We’re all working hard to become ready for MIL and hopefully make it to states, that’s the goal,” Naipo said.

Baldwin’s Ariana Naipo hits against the block of Lahainaluna’s Kalolaine Pasikala during a match on Oct. 26. The defending MIL Division I champion Bears are preparing to play in the Ann Kang Invitational next week on Oahu. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Baldwin, the defending MIL D-I champion, will be the only Neighbor Island team in the prestigious Ann Kang Invitational Volleyball Tournament next week. The event hosted by Iolani includes nine powerhouse programs from California, as well as Oahu powers Punahou, Iolani, Kahuku, Moanalua and Le Jardin.

“It can help a lot because the competition is coming from everywhere, even the Mainland — it’s going to be good to see and test ourselves,” Naipo said.

Paschoal was delivering sets to every imaginable spot as her father and coach, Al Paschoal, challenged her with pass after pass and teammates awaited the chance to smack a ball to the floor.

“It feels good because we’re actually starting on schedule this time, instead of being on pause for a month,” Lilinoe Paschoal said. “It feels good to get in the gym and just play.”

Paschoal said her team is “pushing for states again.”

L. Paschoal

The path begins in the loaded Kang tournament next week.

“We’re looking forward to this a lot,” Paschoal said. “All I know is there’s going to be very tough teams there, so we just have to play our best and keep our heads high.”

Al Paschoal was in his element in War Memorial Gym, but as the Jon Garcia Gym — Baldwin’s on-campus facility across the parking lot from War Memorial — is prepped to get its roof repaired, the Bears coach is concerned.

The Bears’ permit for War Memorial runs only through the end of August because of other commitments already on the books for the gym past the end of the month. Garcia gym will not be available during the volleyball season and quite possibly much of basketball season, as well.

“We’re scrambling without a gym, yeah,” Al Paschoal said. “It’s just been difficult communicating without a place to meet or practice. We took a couple of days, one on the outdoor court, one on the grass quad, and then we had another day where we just kind of bumped the ball around in the gym — we only had, like, an hour.

Seabury Hall’s Kekua Richards puts down a kill during a match against Lanai on Nov. 5. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“We’re just getting a little stretched thin, we’ve got to cover our bases. The girls just have got to learn that it’s just another obstacle, just something else they’ve got to overcome to achieve what they want. … We know we have a gym until the end of August, after that it’s a work in progress.”

Seabury Hall coach Brian Connor also welcomed back his defending MIL Division II championship team this week. Two former Spartans standouts — Kaimana Brummel (formerly Lee) and Lecca Roberts — are on the coaching staff, Roberts as the junior varsity head coach.

Brummel played collegiately at George Washington University and Roberts played at Pepperdine.

“It feels great to be back in the gym,” Connor said via phone on Friday. “We have a big crowd, a lot of players, so we have a very strong, state-contending varsity program and a very strong JV program.”

To have two former NCAA Division I standouts on the staff — Connor’s daughter Ella was an All-American beach player at Cal Poly as a freshman last season — is “very humbling” for the veteran coach.

“It’s been an honor to bring Seabury alums and players/coaches with their experience and knowledge into the gym to help the program, help the players,” Connor said. “The coaching staff takes it very seriously to not have an ego and we want to provide information that will help the players improve.”

The Spartans will be led by upperclassmen Kekua Richards, a 6-foot-7, senior middle blocker; Caelyn Hasegawa, a senior setter; Caroline Belew, a senior middle; and Sofia Connor, a junior all-around player and daughter of the coach.

Richards will work on skills at the outside and opposite hitter spots to up her value to a college team.

“Kekua has the opportunity to play in college at a very high level, D-I program, so for her versatility we want to expose her to other positions,” Connor said. “So we are going to increase her toolbox to play some of the outside positioning and roles that come with being an outside hitter.”

Connor feels his team has a definite shot at a D-II state title — he coached the Seabury Hall boys to the state final in the spring, although they lost to Pearl City in four sets.

The Seabury Hall girls finished fifth last year at state.

“I’m starting Day 1 with the message that we will be at the Blaisdell the weekend of states,” Connor said. “We came so close with the boys and that frustration will fuel this team and the coaching staff. Oahu D-II is always strong, so we will never take anything for granted, but we will push these girls because they have the potential to make it to the finals and win.”

Richards and Hasegawa were managers on the boys team and will also be pushing hard after having a front-row seat watching that team come in second place.

“They were there, they saw how close we were, and they saw what grit and determination the boys had, the effort that they gave,” Connor said. “I could see it that night as we were flying home that those two players were already getting psyched up for their chance. They wanted a different ending.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com

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