Kubasaki retains title with five-set win over ASIJ

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 Kubasaki's Miranda Fino strikes from the front line during the 2015 Far East Division I Volleyball Championship game against ASIJ on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Kubasaki defeated ASIJ to win its second consecutive Far East crown.    James Kimber/Stars and Stripes
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Kubasaki's Miranda Fino strikes from the front line during the 2015 Far East Division I Volleyball Championship game against ASIJ on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Kubasaki defeated ASIJ to win its second consecutive Far East crown. James Kimber/Stars and Stripes

Kubasaki retains title with five-set win over ASIJ

by: James Kimber | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: November 06, 2015

YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea – For the second time in as many years, Kubasaki met American School In Japan for the Far East Volleyball Division I Tournament championship. And for the second straight year, it ended with the same result.

The Dragons defeated the Mustangs 25-14, 26-24, 22-25, 22-25, 15-11 Thursday.

Tournament MVP Josie Daffin shared a team-high 13 kills with Maiya Larry leading the charge. Larry recorded a match-high 21 digs and Courtney Kait dished out 33 assists in the marathon match. ASIJ’s Elyse Davidson recorded match highs with 16 kills and seven block points in the losing effort.

With the season down to the final 15 points, Kubasaki coach Mike Hogen reminded his team that no matter what happened in the fifth set, he was proud of their work and season.

“These girls have worked so hard for everything they’ve earned,” Hogen said. “I ask a lot from them. I want them to study, train, practice and play as hard as they can and then push a little more. All of these girls do that. Whether we win the championship or lose every game, that’s a successful season.”

And the Dragons calmed down and “played our game,” Daffin said. “I just told the team that we need to play the way we played all season.”

“I think we were more natural in the fifth set,” Larry said. “Everything felt right.”

ASIJ was holding its own, but the drain of coming back from two sets down seemed to take its toll in the final points as Kubasaki earned the right to celebrate at midcourt for a second consecutive season.

It was the fourth time the two teams met on the court this season, including last month’s ASIJ Yujo Tournament final, won by the Dragons in straight sets. The Mustangs beat Kubasaki during pool play in that tournament and earlier this week, but the Dragons won both matches with the title on the line.

Though Daffin’s name doesn’t show much in the stat box, her athleticism and 6-foot frame forced attacking offenses to redirect shots and take some heat off of their swings, giving the gritty Kubasaki defense behind her a split second longer to dig out scoring attempts. Her size and unique skill set also stretches defenses and often helps create mismatch opportunities for herself while opening up lanes for her teammates.

“I believe in the system we have here,” Daffin said. “I’m not concerned with what my stats are as long as I’m able to help where I can and our team is better for it. I really just try to get my team back up when they’re feeling down and celebrate with them when things go our way. It’s a huge honor to be the MVP.”

Kubasaki’s other luminary, Larry, is the two-way star who would go first in fantasy drafts. The scrappy sophomore changed positions from libero to outside hitter, a change she wasn’t expecting – though she was excited to have the opportunity to score from the front line despite being undersized for the position.

“It was a challenging move, but I worked really hard and my teammates had my back,” Larry said. “Everyone here believes in what we’re building and all of us will do whatever it takes to be the best team we can be. We’re fortunate to be champions again, but we all worked really hard for it.”

Last year’s championship team played the part of underdog; a team seen as up-and-coming, but still in need of seasoning. This season, the Dragons were the hunted.

“We still practice like no one knows what to expect from us,” Larry said. “We’re the scrappy team who has to work harder than everyone else to win. We won’t change that about our team.”

Kubasaki started fast and aggressive using middle blocker/hitter Daffin to attack the center of the ASIJ defense. The Mustangs came out surprisingly lethargic allowing Kubasaki to jump out to a quick 9-2 lead. That momentum held for the remainder of the set as Kubasaki needed only eight minutes to take the set.

ASIJ woke up from its slumber in the second set after allowing Kubasaki to jump out to a 6-0 lead. The Mustangs eventually tied it and took their first lead of the match going up 20-19 before Kubasaki regained control and took the set.

Down two sets, Davidson and Samantha Hoskins took control. Davidson, a lanky 6-foot-2 junior, recorded eight of her 16 kills with Hoskins setting her up each of those times to keep the team’s title hopes alive. Kubasaki kept it close, but ASIJ forced a fourth set.

That set was the back and forth from the start. There were 20 lead changes with neither team holding a lead greater than two points until ASIJ pulled ahead 24-21 and forced a final set.

It was ASIJ’s fifth consecutive trip to the Far East final and the calm of experience was on display.

“We played really hard, but it was really difficult to come back once we got behind,” Mustangs junior Allie Rogers said. “We are really glad that we pulled out two sets from them, but after we got behind in the last one, we could kind of feel it.”

“We went down swinging, though, and we all couldn’t have been more proud,” Hoskins said following her last match in Mustangs uniform.

Stars and Stripes reporter Dave Ornauer contributed to this report.

kimber.james@stripes.com