By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kaiulani Ahuna is 5 feet, 9 inches and carries not only the offensive load for Kamehameha-Hawaii’s girls volleyball team, but also a pretty big bull’s-eye on her back as well.
Although the junior outside hitter is often targeted with double-team blocks, she somehow finds a way to put the ball on the floor, especially in important matches, like the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I championship for example.
The athletic and lanky Ahuna stepped up to the plate, and slammed 21 kills to spark the Warriors over Hilo 25-16, 25-16, 27-25 last Saturday, lifting Kamehameha to its fourth straight league title while matching a BIIF title collection spree from 2004 to ’07.
Her best work came down the stretch, when her teammates needed timely hitting. With the Warriors down 19-15 in the third set, Ahuna started the comeback, and eventually closed the door, knocking down Kamehameha’s last three kills.
She’s holding a 3.7 grade-point average. She could major in the volleyball team’s history at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament. The Warriors have qualified the last nine years.
Ahuna knows that the Warriors are 0-9 in their opening match during that long run. The three-year starter experienced a two-match exit as a freshman and sophomore, losing in the quarterfinals to Kamehameha-Kapalama in 2011 and to Mililani last year.
The challenge is a difficult Mt. Everest climb again. The No. 4 seed Warriors (16-0) play two-time defending state champion Punahou (14-3) at 7 p.m. today at Keaau High’s gym in the quarterfinals.
What’s worse is the Buffanblu are probably very angry hornets. They lost to No. 1 seed Kamehameha-Kapalama in a bid for their fifth consecutive Interscholastic League of Honolulu championship last Thursday. Punahou, coached by former UH-Hilo star and NAIA Hall of Famer Tanya Fuamatu, led 2-0 and got pelted in the last set, falling 15-5.
“My goal is to make a legacy at the school for us to reach that state championship,” Ahuna said. “We lost our big hitter (Shae Kanakaole, now at Whitman College), a middle and setter from last year. We’ve all stepped up.
“What I’ve learned from Shae is no matter how big a block is, there are ways around it. You can hit a roll shot, off the block or a tip. She wouldn’t get tired until the play was over. If you make a mistake, you have to shake it off and go get the next one. You have to think that the next one is going in.
“During the week of practice, we’ve been hitting against a big block. We’ve grown in every game for this time right now. I know I’m going to get blocked, but I know I’ll get my kills, too. If you make a mistake, you have to keep working harder.”
That’s the type of mindset fifth-year coach Kyle Kaaa recognizes in Ahuna, who landed on the All-BIIF first team last year, after no league honor as a freshman.
She spent the summer playing club ball for Pilipaa, run by teammate Zoe Leonard’s dad, Chris. The club team competed in a tournament in Texas. Ahuna was also part of the Moku O Keawe team that traveled to a High Performance event in Florida.
“She’s always willing to get better every single moment,” Kaaa said. “Her serve-receive is an example. We’re trying to get her not to jump when she receives the ball. She’s always reminding herself, ‘Stay down.’ Every time she steps on the court, she’s getting better.”
Kuulei Ahuna passed away from cancer in April, 2005. He was 51 years old, a stevedore, musician and songwriter. He also gave his youngest daughter a life lesson she’ll never forget.
“My dad was my first teacher when I was playing sports, and he would always tell me to aim when I hit the ball. He would also tell me to never give up what you want,” said Kaiu Ahuna, who was 8 years old when her dad died. “It was hard on my mom (Leslie). She had an early burden, raising me and my sister Mailani (six years older and now a nurse at Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu).
“My mom tells me to work hard all the time to get what you deserve. It’s all about the little things, like chores. That’s responsibility. Everyone has a part to play and we rely on each other. My dad has a lot of brothers (three) and sisters (five). We had a lot of family help. Anything can happen. You have to cherish every moment.”
Kaaa is a Kamehameha science teacher, and one of his colleagues is Leslie Ahuna, a speech and drama teacher at the middle school. Mom did not have her daughter in class; however, Ahuna was a lead in the school’s opera with everything in Hawaiian.
Ahuna points to junior outside hitter Harley Woolsey as the vocal leader, and senior libero Kayla Flores as everyone’s best friend when times get tough, providing in-the-huddle timeout aphorisms.
The coach observes a lot of similarities between mother and daughter, who leads in a different way.
“She leads by example. Her words are encouragement to her teammates,” he said. “She’ll say, ‘You’re the best server or serve-receiver.’ I’ll hear her voice, and she’ll say something at the right time to help her teammates.
“She gets that leadership part from her mom. Leslie is one of the leaders at the middle school. She’s one of the lead teachers and likes to organize things. Kaiu likes things organized. They’re very similar in personality.”
Chris Leonard is also a Kamehameha assistant coach. He pretty much coaches Ahuna and his daughter Zoe, a right-side hitter and setter, year-round. The two Warriors have been playing together since the first grade.
He’s watched Ahuna grow as a hitter, improving each year with All-BIIF recognition as hard evidence, and matching that production with her promotion to L1 as the top outside hitter, jumping in Kanakaole’s shoes.
“She’s developed into an experienced hitter,” Leonard said. “She’s learned to use all her shots, not just be a power hitter, but a smart hitter, too. It’s equivalent to a young major league pitcher who comes in and overpowers the league. But as the league figures him out and makes adjustments, you have to do that and that applies to volleyball and Kaiu. That’s a great attribute as an outside hitter.”
Kaaa likes to note half-jokingly that everyone knows Ahuna will take the swings when the Warriors need to make something happen. And most times, with her good timing and body control, she delivers.
“It’s no secret that she’s our No. 1 hitter. Everybody on the island knows that,” he said. “In the last set in the BIIF championship, the last three sets went to Kaiu and she put it away.
“That’s how much we’ve grown to expect that. All of them were pipe hits, from behind the 10-foot line. She carries the team on her shoulders.”
That’s Ahuna second proudest moment. The best memory of her young life is learning to ride a bike. Her dad was her teacher, and it was all about his life-long message: Determination will take you a long way.
“When my dad was teaching me to ride a bike I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I kept trying and I couldn’t do it. Then he looked away and I did it. I remember being like, ‘Yes.’ It’s a rite of passage learning to ride a bike. That’s an experience I remember that I got it.
“I think my dad would be proud that I’ve surrounded myself with great people. That I’ve never given up and I work hard for what I want.”