By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Recent Waiakea graduate Isaiah Brilhante had two goals: become one of the top high school tennis players in the state and one of the top students in his class.
Mission accomplished with a 2 for 2 performance at the plate.
In his senior year and last chance, Brilhante captured the Big Island Interscholastic Federation title that had eluded him. At the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships, he finished third; his only loss of the season was to the state champ, Punahou’s Kawika Lam.
Brilhante was the school’s valedictorian, with a 4.15 grade-point average, the highest overall GPA in his class and a helpful tool when applying to college.
He received a merit scholarship and financial aid to Cornell University that covers 85 percent of a total package to the Ivy League school in Ithaca, N.Y., rated 15th by U.S. News in a list of best colleges.
“I was pretty happy I got it. Honestly, I didn’t think I would get in,” said Brilhante, who plans to major in biology. “There are a lot of kids who excel in sports and in school. Going to Cornell has been a dream of mine since the seventh grade.
“I was following them during the NCAA basketball tournament (2008 to ’10). I knew about them before basketball. I read about the school online and it appealed to me. It seems to fit my personality. Cornell is under the radar, I guess, and Cornell personifies me more than any other school.”
His dad Bill Brilhante, a lawyer for the county, was his coach at Waiakea. His mom Tami is a teacher at Hilo Intermediate. His swing coach is Evan Schermer, the director of tennis at the Royal Kona Resort, and another one who pushed Brilhante, who also trains in Hilo with Ryan Ideta, a former ATP World Tour pro.
During his valedictorian speech, Brilhante thanked everyone who made graduation possible throughout the years and offered a three-point message: make good friends, never give up and everything is earned through hard work.
Brilhante could only laugh when reminded that message sounded much like the blueprint to his BIIF tennis career.
“I had to earn that BIIF championship,” he said. “My good friend was more about school than anything. Matthew Sueda (headed to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania) and I were in every single class together. We kind of pushed in each other in school. Without him, I might not have had as much drive to do well in school as I did.
“Being the valedictorian means everything to me. It’s such a great feeling, knowing that all the hard work, late-night studies, getting little sleep paid off. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
His dad saw the necessary dedication, practicing at the Waiakea High courts until dark, hitting the books when he got home, and taking breaks to get in weight training, rope and footwork drills.
His mom drove him two hours over to Kona to practice with Schermer, a training process that is still ongoing during the summer three times a week. Brilhante credited her with giving him a pat on the back, providing the emotional support that sharpened his confidence.
“She always had the confidence that I could win, even when I had a little doubt in myself,” Brilhante said. “She pushed me, too. She made sure I was training properly, keeping up with my school work. She drives me out to Kona each time. That’s a big physical help.
“What coach Evan and my dad taught me was to have confidence in my ability to succeed in my senior year, that I was going to win BIIFs. Without that confidence, I don’t think I could have won because confidence is a pretty big thing in sports.”
And father, like son, pointed out that it takes a village to lift a Warrior to great heights.
“Isaiah realized that tennis would be the vehicle that could get him to the front door, but success in the classroom would ultimately be the ticket affording him a place in the room,” Bill Brilhante said. “The teachers at Waiakea High have been tremendous. Without them there is absolutely no way Isaiah would have been able to get into Cornell.
“It will only get harder from here. He will be faced with new and harder challenges. Everybody at the school will be a top student from somewhere. Cornell tennis is a competitive Division I program. For me, the best part is he gets it. He knows what he wants to do and how hard and how much he needs to work in order to be successful.”
Isaiah Brilhante is not only a top tennis player and student-athlete, but he’s also a role model. He has two younger sisters, Maile and Jade. He has already influenced them.
“They’re telling me they want to go to Cornell, too,” he said.