By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
Unlike most other popular sports out there, the game of volleyball is fundamentally reliant on the concept of teamwork. While hitters might get the glory, what they do wouldn’t be possible without a good setter who directs the offense, and a good setter couldn’t do his thing without a libero passing and digging.
Bottom line, the best teams work off of chemistry and this year’s North Saxon varsity boy’s volleyball team was so proficient in the subject, they’d all ace the AP exam.
Like the covalent bond shared between a single oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, a unified volleyball team simply flows together.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie,” co-captain Frank Jimenez told the Rafu Shimpo following Tuesday night’s CIF semi-final loss to rival South. “It’s the ultimate team sport because you need all six players to achieve greatness.”
Jimenez is a fourth generation (Yonsei) Mexican American who has seen the highs and lows of the varsity team over his four years on it. A year after not making the playoffs at all, he led this year’s squad all the way to the CIF semi-finals, the furthest a North team has gone in the school’s history.
“To go out with this group of guys, and each one of them I consider my friends, is something really special,” he said.
Upon closer inspection of the players on the team, their backgrounds, their history, one quickly discovers just how special.
In a country whose history includes slavery and Japanese American incarceration, where half the populace is deathly afraid of Muslims, and where one state is currently taking, what some might call, extreme measures on illegal immigrants, racial tension is an integral part of our culture.
In the midst of all this, the North volleyball team is a fusion of ethnic diversity.
Coached by Sansei, Jonathan Kaneshiro who has been a part of North volleyball for nearly 20 years, the team features another full Japanese American in junior Kyler Kitani. The rest of the roster spans the globe.
There’s co-captain, Daniel Higuchi who is full Japanese, but who’s mother is Japanese Peruvian. Co-captain Steve Marsiglia who is half Samoan and a mix of German, Irish and Italian. Co-captain Justin Buck, who’s half-Japanese, half Caucasian. Mazen Alloush, who’s half Filipino, a quarter Syrian and a quarter Palestinian. Christian Hedlend, who’s half Japanese, half British. Clement Ng, a second generation Chinese American. Michael Perez, who’s half Filipino, half Japanese. And assistant coach Kevin Gray, a half Irish, half Filipino.
Higuchi grew to love volleyball from his mother who played the sport in Peru. Alloush digs his mother’s egg rolls while Buck enjoys eating everything from hotdogs to udon. Ng is going to major in computer science and wants to develop video games.
Despite their myriad differences, this group, brought together through the love of a game, stands as a shining model of what life in America could be like if the melting pot simply bonded together.
“It’s been really exciting,” coach Kaneshiro said. “I think when Frank was a freshman, we had a really good team and he was the young guy coming in. It was kind of great. But we lost a lot of good players, so I had to really start to groom and get these younger guys going.
“I had to get them situated in their roles. Last year we didn’t make the playoffs. That whole season was getting them to understand their roles, compete at a high level and think positively.”
While these roles quite literally refer to the actual positions played, Kaneshiro’s message goes deeper than that. Knowing one’s role embraces sacrifice.
Last year, despite being a natural outside hitter, Kaneshiro asked Marsiglia to move to the middle to fill a need. He did so, worked hard at it and this year, moved back to outside hitter. Kaneshiro explained that Marsiglia’s patience and willingness to sacrifice personal desire for the team made him a better overall player. In the same manner, Perez, a natural outside hitter, moved to libero this year where his passing skills were ultimately better utilized to help the team.
Alloush struggled finding the perfect balance between volleyball and his responsibilities as ASB vice president. Midway through the season, he made his decision.
“Volleyball became my first priority,” he said. “I had an inner struggle about that. But, in the end, with the end result, I’m pretty glad I chose volleyball because it has always been there for me.”
In addition to sacrifice, the idea of one’s role includes hard work.
“Our assistant coach, [Kevin Gray] worked out with all of us in the summer,” Kitani said. “We lifted, we ran. We did a bunch of stuff. For the offseason, he worked us out with a whole program.”
Gray, a former North player, explained that while the strength and conditioning training he had six years ago was good, he wanted to take it to the next level. Using his degree in fitness health promotion, the man the team calls KG applied what he’d learned during his four years at Cal State Fullerton to “really push them.” Which he did.
These roles also include understanding and acceptance.
“I learned a lot on how things were for the seniors and how important things were,” said Hedlend, a sophomore who moved into the starting lineup this season when the guy ahead of him unexpectedly quit.
“I couldn’t tell myself that I had two more years to go and that this didn’t really matter,” he said. “I told myself, that this is big for them. Knowing that this team had so many high expectations because they had the potential from the beginning of their freshmen years with Frank and Steven and Daniel, being second, third-year varsity guys, I knew I had to focus and couldn’t let them down.”
“We made big improvements from last year, which was a very bad season,” Buck said. “We all stepped up. We learned from our losses and became even better.”
Finally, these roles mean doing whatever it takes.
“I would do anything for these guys,” Kaneshiro said. “We worked hard all season. We set goals and I made a lot of promises. One of the things I told them was that I would do anything for them, but that they would have to go out there and work. In the end, we were definitely rewarded by a really great season.”
Knowing their roles, rather, embracing their roles, pushed this year’s Saxons to new heights. Sure, according to Higuchi, the team might have peaked a little too early. Sure, they ended the season with a record of 18-18. Sure, they pushed all the way to the semifinals only to lose to rival South in three straight sets, an outcome Marsiglia said was “probably the worst.”
But, in the end, they found joy in each other.
“The best moment was our CIF run,” Higuchi said. “Our whole season actually. Just getting to play with these guys. It’s been great.”
Kaneshiro summed up the season best during a moment right before the start of the semi-final game. Due to the gym’s sound system malfunctioning, the near capacity crowd was stranded on their feet for several awkward moments waiting for the National anthem to kick in.
Embracing his motto of doing anything for his players, as well as embracing the moment, Kaneshiro calmly took the microphone and belted out a wonderful rendition that was met with raucous applause and cheering from both the North and South crowds.
“When it didn’t happen and everyone was just standing there, I just said, ‘Just do it,’” Kaneshiro said.
“I’m one of those guys who likes it when everything flows.”
Just like this year’s squad.
Just like H2O.