By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kamehameha outside hitter Kaiulani Ahuna was promoted to her volleyball team’s top job, and responded with a season that was equal parts outstanding, valuable and even inspirational.
Last season, she was the L2, the second left-side hitter behind Shae Kanakaole, who’s now at Whitman College. But as the lead horse, Ahuna carried the Warriors to their fourth straight Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I championship.
The 5-foot-9 junior’s production also earned her another reward. Ahuna was voted the BIIF Player of the Year for Division I, by the league’s coaches.
“I’m honored. I love playing with my teammates,” she said. “I know after watching Shae, there was a lot of pressure on me. But I got help from my teammates. Everyone played their part and that made me better.
“We all wanted the same thing. We were all better from last year. We all came back better. We wanted to win the BIIF championship. But not only that, it’s not necessarily how you start, but how you finish.”
She was talking about Kamehameha’s performance at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament, where the Warriors are 0-10 in their opening game.
As the No. 3 seed, Kamehameha fell to Punahou in the quarterfinals, beat Aiea in consolation, and lost to Kahuku for fifth place. BIIF runner-up Hilo fell to Kahuku in the first round, defeated Leilehua in consolation, and topped Farrington for seventh place.
“A lot of people thought we’d go one-two-barbecue at states,” Ahuna said. “But we played with heart and as a team. I liked the better competition, not knowing what the other teams would run or how they hit. I liked that challenge.”
Joining her on the first team are three teammates in junior right-side hitter Zoe Leonard, junior outside hitter Harley Woolsey, and senior outside hitter Anuhea Leite-AhYo. Hilo senior outside hitters Amanda Loeffler and Evalani Toledo and libero Angel Alameda, and Kealakehe junior setter Kyra Calbero round out the first team.
It’s the second time Ahuna was named to the first team. As a freshman, she was shut out. It’s a repeat honor for Loeffler and Toledo.
“From my freshman year, I’ve gotten better,” Ahuna said. “I feel you can get better at every practice, every game, every tournament. I want everything in my game to get better, my passing, hitting. I want to hit harder, dig more balls, serve tougher. There’s always room for improvement, always.
“I always wanted to make sure that everybody’s head was up. If someone was down, pick them up. I would tell my teammates that they’re all great players.”
Ahuna was recognized on the state level as well. She’s a member on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s All-State Fab 15 team, voted by a panel of coaches and media.
Hilo libero Alameda was the only BIIF player named to the Division I All-Tournament state team. As a junior, she received All-BIIF honorable mention; the first team didn’t have a libero last year.
Three Kamehameha players received honorable mention: senior libero Kayla Flores, sophomore setter Kamalu Makekau-Whittaker and junior middle blocker Pua Wong.
There are only five Division I schools: Hilo, Kamehameha, Keaau, Kealakehe and Waiakea. And since statewide classification in 2005, the league has had All-BIIF teams in both divisions, even when there’s a round-robin format.
No doubt, it’s a shallow pool to pick players for All-BIIF teams in both divisions. Honokaa outside hitter Kari Heers, who played college ball at Utah Valley State, was the last BIIF Player of the Year, in 2004, in voting that included all players.
But Ahuna, who frequently looked like the most athletic player on the court though much shorter, smashed a match-high 13 kills against Punahou in the three-set loss. Buffanblu coach Tanya Fuamatu-Anderson walked away impressed that Ahuna tore up double blocks firmly glued on her.
Ahuna’s talent level was also confirmed with her All-State selection, competing for a spot against players from the powerful Interscholastic League of Honolulu, which has pocketed the last 11 state titles. The Fab 15 is the best of the best from the state — in both Division I and II.
There’s no definition on the voting ballot to what a BIIF Player of the Year is — whether it’s a most outstanding, valuable or inspirational award.
But Kamehameha coach Kyle Kaaa knows he’s got a blue-collar Warrior in Ahuna, who provided all three attributes. She’s keeping in shape with her Pilipaa club team and the school’s swimming squad, joining for the first time with movements in the water that could make her better, strengthening her shoulder and core muscles.
“She is the total package. What sets her apart from other players is her work ethic, on and off the court and her consistency in every part of the game,” he said. “We set Kaiu when we needed a point, even if she was in the backcourt. She found a way to terminate the play by going around, through and sometimes over the block. She also has a variety of shots — tips and chips — that she used at the right time.
“Her role as our No. 1 hitter was a natural progression, and a role that she is used to. On her club team, she has been the No. 1 hitter for several years. Her performance throughout the season and in the state tournament was consistent.
“She did everything we asked of her during the state tournament. Even the Punahou coach said that she would do well in the ILH. I’m excited to see what she adds to her skill-set when she returns next year.”