Starring Setters Help Turn Around Lady Mustang Season

As Kalaheo girls volleyball head coach Berta Downey assesses her team, there’s no doubt its recent success owes much to sophomore setters Leslie Sanchez-Arellano and Siani Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi played for Kailua last year, while Sanchez-Arellano was still a freshman. Paired up, they play now as if on the same heartbeat. Indeed, their cohesiveness also prompted Downey to change things up schematically, moving from a 5-1 set to a 6-2, allowing both girls to set in the same attack.

“Both were playing in a 5-1 for their teams last year,” she explained. “It takes a load off of both to have them playing together. They complement each other and have grown since the beginning of the season. They’re both on fire right now with this team. They’re each other’s biggest fans, which is exactly what you want to see as a coach.”

By Sept. 19, Kalaheo was just 1-7, although many of the losses came to Division I teams under the OIA’s current format, which mixes DI with DII during the regular season. From that time, Kalaheo reeled off five straight wins heading into its OIA DII playoff game with Radford last Thursday.

They already had clinched a DII state tournament berth by then. Ironically, it was their last loss – a 25-21, 21-25, 15-9 setback to still-unbeaten Kahuku (as of press time) – that showed the team how good it could be, according to Yamaguchi. (Kalaheo was the only regular-season foe to take Kahuku to three games.)

“I told the girls to focus on playing our game against Kahuku and not worry about their big crowd,” she said.

As for her easy alliance with Sanchez-Arellano, she noticed the two were in sync very quickly. “We’re the same, and we act the same. We’re always positive and happy and encouraging the other girls. When we’re down, we help and encourage each other to get the next one (ball) back. We hang out together out of school. We eat together at school. We all eat together as a team.”

Added Sanchez-Arellano: “We play in the same club, but we weren’t on the same team and we didn’t really talk to each other. In our first game, I thought we really clicked. That’s when it started – we connected. Now, we have so much trust in each other. We help each other because we know the position so well. Two minds connect as one.”

Team unity has remained the strength, in Yamaguchi’s view. “I was surprised at how fast we all got along. It’s important. On the court, you have to play as a team and communicate with each other to gel. When we’re talking and communicating, we play better.”

Kalaheo was just 1-10 last year, but has found its stride at the right time, in Downey’s view. “Our girls are peaking right when we want them to – there’s definitely been a big turnaround. They all believe in each other, and that’s one of the best things about this team. They’re so happy to be where they are now.”

“We all started the season with the mindset that we would make the state tournament,” said Sanchez-Arellano. “We’ve all been working hard to get better. Having won only one game last year, we’re super excited knowing we are going. We’re so proud.”