By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Lahi Kanakanui’s motor keeps running with her eyes always on the prize.
The Hilo sophomore seems to always be in shape for one of her two favorite Big Island Interscholastic Federation sports — either judo or wrestling.
She’s ready to defend her 139-pound BIIF judo title, starting today with the season-opener while hoping to inspire a young Hilo team, which includes four rookies — senior Raymond Andrade, junior Cameron McDaniel, sophomores Alika Lawrence and Shaylyn Arakaki — on the 15-member roster.
Senior Sheldon Graham, juniors Brayden Cruz-Silva and Frederico Vento, sophomores Kevin Rapoza and Julian Tongpalan and freshmen Cody Akiyama, Makana Campbell and Alex Rapoza have judo experience for boys. Junior Lia Nakamura, sophomore Seysha Ann Bondaug (109 BIIF champion) and freshman Kathleen Shon have experience for the girls.
Kanakanui got into both sports watching her brother, Isaiah Kanakanui, who captured the 161 title at the BIIF judo championships last season. It made for a nice sibling moment. He was a senior, she a freshman, and they both brought home gold.
At the state championships, she placed sixth. Her brother added a bronze medal to his trophy case.
Then she kept working throughout the summer, joining the inaugural BJ Penn High School Athletics-Unified Alliance, a program organized by Layne Luna with about 30 BIIF wrestlers and judoka pushing each other.
She was ready for her sophomore season of wrestling, and pocketed the 140 crown at the BIIF championships, capping an undefeated league run.
At the state championships, which were held March 2-3, she finished fifth with little time to catch her breath with judo right around the corner.
“It helps keep me in shape and makes my mind stronger,” she said. “My judo club is at the Waiakea Rec Center and I’ll join the BJ Penn High School Athletics if they have it again this summer.
“I’m excited for the season to start. I’m hoping to do good. You have to use your technique and mind. It’s more technique and not so much strength. I’ve been working on my footing. I got into judo in seventh grade and wrestling as a freshman.”
Kanakanui stands under 5 feet 4 but she’s got a surplus of strength as a handy weapon. Luna pointed out last summer that her bench press was 150 pounds and squat over 200 pounds.
New Hilo coach Felipe Sales envisions a bright future for Kanakanui, who hopes to land a wrestling scholarship.
“She has a lot of talent and ability. She has great potential,” said Sales, who coached intramural judo at the University of Washington for nine years. “She’s coming off the wrestling team so she’s in condition. The start of the season is the beginning of March and it ends in May. It’s a short season, so you have to come in shape.
“I’m pretty excited. The last 3 1/2 weeks we’ve been working them hard and pushing them hard. We’ve set a high bar. They’re not close yet, but they’ve improved a lot. I’m excited to see what kind of results we have on Saturday. We’re pretty much a young team.”
Sales takes over for Jack DeLima, who is now a BIIF official. The new coach started judo while in the Marine Corps. He works as a team leader at the Hilo Veterans Center, counseling combat veterans and families.
“I teach old-school style judo. We use a little more technique,” he said. “It’s not so much about power. In judo, the little guy can throw the big guy. It takes technique more than strength.”
That’s a philosophy Kanakanui follows. Her brother, Isaiah, also provided her with a game plan.
“His advice to me was to keep my options open, stay focused, don’t let anything bother me in the match, and keep my eyes on the prize,” she said.
What: Season opener
When: today 9 a.m.
Where: Hilo High
Defending champions: Waiakea, boys; four-time Kamehameha, girls