By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Volleyball coach Ainsley Keawekane has a favorite saying: I love what I do, but don’t make me hate what I do.
On the cusp of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation season, there’s a lot for him to like at Konawaena.
This is not your average Lady Wildcats volleyball team.
Chanelle Molina’s passion is basketball, but her athleticism translates pretty well to outside hitter, too. Makani Wall’s entering her fourth year at setter. McKenna Ventura, formerly of Hawaii Prep, is in tow to fill a void in the middle. And if there were any concerns at libero, those were settled by the arrival of German exchange student Ela Seier.
Another new face is a familiar one. Keawekane just took over last week, but in reality he’s been pulling the strings all along for many of the Wildcats as the club coach at Ho‘opa Hawaii.
“There’s a lot of talent, and most of the starting lineup are all club players,” he said. “For any (high school) team in West Hawaii, that’s unusual. Eastside teams are usually the only ones that are all club.”
Of course, the Wildcats boasted more than your average group of sports programs last season.
The girls volleyball team reached the BIIF final the past two seasons, but what else is new at Konawaena?
All the Wildcats accomplished in team sports last season was Division I titles in boys and girls basketball as well as girls soccer, not to mention Division II titles in football and boys soccer. The BIIF runners-up included girls volleyball, baseball and softball.
“We’ve been having very athletic classes the last couple of years,” said Wall, who was on basketball teams that won the Hawaii High School Athletic Association championship as a freshman and sophomore, then switched over to soccer last season. “Competing at that level all these years, I feel very lucky.”
The volleyball team has reached states the past two seasons in Division II, but it’s twice missed out on its first BIIF title since 1998 in championship game losses to Hawaii Prep two years ago and Ka’u last season.
“I’m tired of finishing runner-up,” Wall said.
Like some of her teammates, Molina’s first sport is basketball, which she started playing when she was 10. The 5-foot-6 sophomore made first-team all-BIIF last season in basketball as the powerhouse Wildcats fell a game short of their third straight HHSAA title. In volleyball, she was a second-team all-league selection at outside hitter.
“Chanelle is also an amazing volleyball player,” said Keawekane, who’s worked with Molina since she was 12. “I realize that basketball is her first love, but I appreciate having her on the team.”
So does Wall, a senior setter who will share some duties this season with freshman Celena Molina, Chanelle’s younger sister, as Keawekane implements a two-setter system.
“Chanelle’s my money hitter,” Wall said. “This girl right here is a basher.”
She showed that by being named most outstanding player at the Waiakea Girls Volleyball Invitational on Saturday as Konawaena raced to the championship before losing to three-time defending Division I BIIF champion Kamehameha. Earlier in the semifinals, the Wildcats beat Hilo, the team they’ll open the season against this Saturday in Kealakekua.
While there are no shortage of options on the roster, if Konawaena needs a key point, it’s likely turning to Molina.
“It’s an honor,” she said. “I feel the pressure. I really need to stay focused on what I’m capable of and what I should do.”
For all their potential, the Wildcats are young, the team has only three seniors, and they’re not the tallest bunch in the BIIF.
“We have smaller hitters, but they are just as effective as before when we were taller,” Wall said. “When we got clicking (at Waiakea), it was real exciting.”
Keawekane calls 5-6 junior Kaela Avanilla, second-team all-BIIF last season at middle blocker, the jumper of the team and a spark, while he feels 5-9 sophomore Ihi Victor brings blocking and athleticism as outside hitter.
Ventura gives the Wildcats more height. After making honorable mention all-league as a freshman for the Ka Makani last season at middle blocker, she’ll attend Hawaiian immersion school Ke Kula O Ehunuikaimalino, as will Keawekane’s daughter Ha’ena, a freshman who will play off the bench to provide defense and serving.
“The kids are well aware that the team that makes the least mistakes will win,” Ainsley Keawekane said. “Let’s be that team.”
Keawekane coached Makua Lani last season, and he was only planning on being an assistant for Konawaena this year. But that all changed when former coach Amy Dunston moved to the mainland.
Seier’s work ethic was one of the things that stood out to him in the preseason. Keawekane says the senior’s so competitive that he’s trying to work to get her to enjoy the game more.
“We have all the skills, and we all have different strengths,” Molina said. “We just have to put it together and work as a team.”