By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KAILUA-KONA -- With 11 first-year players and a first-year coach, the Hawaii Preparatory Academy water polo team tends to follow the lead of its three seniors.
At times, Bhillie Luciani, Anu Nihipali and Jellian Cuartero play angry and frustrated, and the Ka Makani’s play suffers.
On other days, they jump in the pool brimming with confidence.
Luciani said the latter was the case in Friday’s Big Island Interscholastic Federation semifinal against Kealakehe. As usual, the feeling was contagious and the Ka Makani generated a lot of excitement because of it.
Nihipali scored three first-quarter goals and Luciani finished with a team-high four as HPA beat the Waveriders 9-6 at Kona Community Aquatic Center to lock down the BIIF’s second spot at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament.
“That’s a pretty huge deal for us,” coach Greg McKenna said. “From the beginning of the season to right now, we’re a much stronger, faster and smarter team.
“We’ve gone from some asking, “What is water polo? Can I use two hands? But now we’re here. It was a really great first year. The girls were so cohesive.”
HPA (8-3) will return to KCAC at noon today as a decided underdog against Kamehameha (11-0) in the championship game. The Warriors, who earned a state spot as the league’s regular-season champion, overwhelmed Waiakea 19-3 in the other semifinal.
McKenna was looking forward to the opportunity.
“I think we’ll put on a good show and challenge them in ways they’re not expecting,” McKenna said.
Any upset plans will undoubtedly start with his three seniors, who are all strong swimmers and have proven to be good leaders.
“Having the three of them in the pool just brings everyone up to the next level,” McKenna said. “You could say our offense is centered around them, but when they’re on and feeling good in the water, it’s hard for them to miss.”
Nihipali didn’t do much of that in the first quarter.
She secured her hat trick with 1:24 left in the period, Cuartero also netted a goal, and Luciani got going with two in the second quarter as HPA began to take over, leading 6-2 at halftime.
Junior Mehana Pilago carried the Waveriders (7-4) with four scores. But Kealakehe, which had beaten HPA 11-9 last weekend in Waimea, never was able to get the deficit below three goals after Luciani opened the scoring in the second quarter.
“We focused on our movement in practice,” Luciani said. “And keeping a positive attitude. Because when we get frustrated it really brings our game down. But when we’re positive, everybody is positive.”
On a typical play to start a quarter, the ball is dropped at the midline and Nihipali, the two-time defending state champion in the backstroke, beats everyone to the ball then flips it to Luciani so that Hawaii Prep can get into its offense.
On Friday, the Ka Makani also tightened their defense with a swarming effort that held Kealakehe scoreless over an 11-minute stretch spanning the first and second halves. Meanwhile, HPA was able build its lead to 7-2 on Hannah Twigg-Smith’s goal early in the third.
“Our strength is our defense,” Luciani said. “We’re fast, strong and good at pressuring. We always talk about pressuring on defense and pressuring them to make a bad pass.”
Pilago was a force when Kealakehe was able to feed her inside, but McKenna lauded the “tireless” efforts of 2-meter defender Leilani Bostock.
Naomi Tomlinson and Hannah Hewitt tacked on goals as Kealakehe made a spurt in the fourth quarter.
Pilago’s goal total could have been higher, but HPA goaltender Seychelle Francis stonewalled her during a third-quarter penalty shot.
This will be HPA’s first appearance at states – which run May 7-10 on Oahu – since 2010.
Only Luciani remains from that team. Nihipali, an Oahu native, transferred to HPA before her junior season to give the Ka Makani a dynamic, inside-out scoring presence.
“It’s a great opportunity and it’s exciting,” Luciani said. “It will be good for all of the girls who are returning next year. (At states) we’ll be able to play teams (who) are at a higher level.”
And the Ka Makani will get a look at another upper-echelon team today against a Kamehameha club looking to complete its fourth straight undefeated BIIF season.
Coach Dan Lyons didn’t even start his usual lineup in the semifinal.
Lyons had his players split into teams this week during practice to compete for altering lineups during each of the first three quarters, and his seniors started the fourth.
The result was balanced scoring: Acacia Trusdell and Sydney Plunkett scored four goals apiece and Halia Nahale-a added a hat trick. Cassidy Fratinardo scored twice, and the Warriors got a goal each from Michelle Fratinardo, Anuhea Leite-Ah Yo, Pua Wong, Chloe Martins-Keliihoomalu, Paula Imoto and Issha Mata.
“We look forward to seeing how our starters can do (today),” Lyons said.
Jillian Hughes led Waiakea (4-7) with two scores, and Akemi King finished her BIIF career with a goal.