By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kassie Kometani didn’t win gold at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation championships, instead taking home a silver medal, which carried an equal amount of significance for the aspiring Kohala swimming program.
The sophomore, in her biggest BIIF race to date, had a tough challenge facing Waiakea senior Madisyn Uekawa, a grizzled veteran with a long track record of winning, in the 50-yard freestyle on Saturday at Naeole Pool.
“I saw her out of the corner of my eye. I saw that she was right up with me,” Kometani said. “That definitely motivated me.”
Kometani put up a really good fight. Uekawa was faster but not by a whole lot. She clocked in at 24.62 seconds to the Cowgirl’s 24.88.
Both are qualifying times, as well as Kamehameha third-place finisher Paula Imoto’s 25.32, for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships, which will be held Feb. 15-16 on Oahu.
Kometani earlier qualified for states, a good first step in Kohala’s return to swimming. The small school in Kapaau, with enrollment annually around 250 students, last had a swimming program in 2006. The sport is back and it’s a growing garden of potential, built on more than just work in the pool.
“She’s not only athletic but she’s a good scholar,” said Kohala coach Jeff Coakley, who put in the groundwork to bring the program back. “She’s ranked No. 1 in her class. She’s a 4.0 grade-point average student.
“She’s a hard worker, dedicated and focused. All those things help keep her organized. She sets goals for herself. She’s very goal-oriented. All of that contributes to her success.”
Kometani picked up a bronze medal in the 100 freestyle, again, taking on top competition in Hilo senior Beth Tsuha, who set league and BIIF championship records with her 52.43 time, and Hawaii Prep senior Anu Nihipali, who finished in 53.88.
The 5-foot-5 Cowgirl, who has long arms and legs, great traits for sprinting in the water, clocked a 55.67, slower than the state-qualifying time of 55.59. But she got a consideration time, which means if there aren’t enough qualifying times she gets in.
The other obvious good news for Kometani is that Uekawa, Tsuha and Nihipali, the three swimmers ahead of her in both race, are seniors. She’s also a year-round swimmer on the USA team, competing out of a Kohala branch from the Warrior Aquatic Club, and facing top competition all the time, a good way to get better.
“Our principal (Janette Snelling) took a risk to bring back swimming,” Coakley said. “Luckily, we started the USA team and that contributes to our high school team. We’ve got two swimmers from there, Kassie and freshman Yuki Zbytovsky.”
Zbytovsky was fourth in the 100 butterfly in 1:06.15, a state consideration time, and sixth in the 100 backstroke. She probably would have gone faster if healthy.
“She excels in all the strokes,” Coakley said. “Technique-wise she’s very accomplished. But she broke her collarbone and that has caused her problems. She’s still rehabbing and coming back. Once she does she’ll be awesome.”
The next job for Kohala is building its roster. There are only three boys and two girls. At least there’s a bright future with Zbytovsky and Kometani, who enjoyed her medals.
“I’m happy with that,” she said. “I thought that being only a sophomore it’s a big accomplishment. I’ve got two more years after this.”
And best of all Kometani has a healthy supply of self-drive.
“Once I knew I started to do well I want to push myself harder,” she said. “I like that feeling of getting better.”