By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Except for the inaugural year in 2005, Hawaii Prep has been a regular at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II girls state volleyball championships, enjoying the journey and learning a life lesson or two every time.
That’s the golden goal for Ka Makani coach Sharon Peterson, who retired in 2002 after a 25-year career at UH-Hilo, where she produced a 511-251 record for a .671 winning percentage, including seven national championships.
Winning seems to shadow Peterson, who announced her UHH retirement on Dec. 4, 2002 and talked about her life’s work: “What I’ll miss most and love the best is teaching, whether it’s life skills or something else. The best moment for me is teaching.”
Peterson’s student-athletes are heeding her tutelage and still passing with flying colors.
HPA was the underdog against Konawaena in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II championship, but won in five sets, finding a way to neutralize Chanelle Molina’s 27 kills. Earlier in the season, the Wildcats swept the first meeting.
No. 3 seed HPA (13-3) will play the Hawaii Baptist (12-2)/Roosevelt (7-7) winner at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Kaimuki High in the quarterfinals.
BIIF runner-up Kona (13-3) will play Hana (8-4) at 5 p.m. Tuesday at McKinley High in the first round. Pahoa (9-8) will play Waimea (12-2) at 7 p.m. in the late game at McKinley.
“What I like best about our team, for the most part, is our ground defense (digging) and passing,” first-year Kona coach Ainsley Keawekane said. “Defense is what makes everything. Defense is what wins championships. If we keep defending, we can win a title.”
Asked her team’s mission as HPA heads to states for the eighth straight year, Peterson’s response was a nod to her life-long motto that “the game is played from the neck up.”
“We want to really battle with really good teams. It’s a great experience to see how good we can be,” she said. “Another experience is to be able to play together, keep our mental and emotional games solid. Then if we do that the rest will come along.
“We’re not going in saying we want to win this many games. We want to prepare, work hard, stay together as a team, be mentally tough, see how we bounce back from adversity whether we’re behind or ahead. Those are lessons the players can take the rest of their lives. And if we win a few, I’m thrilled with that.”
Last year at states, HPA achieved a milestone with a first-round win over Interscholastic League of Honolulu powerhouse Hawaii Baptist. In the six previous years, Peterson’s Ka Makani lost their opening game.
What was significant about that triumph was HPA’s best player had already graduated. Leeta Grap, the BIIF Player of the Year in 2011 in the power-packed Blue division, was in her freshman season at North Idaho College last year.
The resourceful Ka Makani captured their third league title in four years behind several players either green to the game or on the rebound from injury. They broke in two new middle blockers in junior Alaina Bradley and senior Seychelle Francis as well as senior libero Kawena Lim-Samura, a pitcher on the softball team.
Senior setter Tiana Bertelmann-Tabac, part of the 6-2 lineup with junior setter Tehane Reynolds, was sidelined most of the season following ACL surgery, an injury suffered during BIIF basketball. Carina Verhulsdonk, last year’s libero, turned into a setter in her senior year.
Verhulsdonk missed the BIIF tournament with a sprained ankle, but at least Bertelmann-Tabac saw action in a championship that highlighted the squad’s two outside hitters Gabbie Ewing and Tiana Reynolds, who led the way with 15 kills.
“When Carina became a setter, we needed someone to step in and Kawena gave it a try,” Peterson said. “She’s done a nice job. It’s not an easy position to jump into.
“We’ve had a lot of new kids. It’s kind of similar when we had Leeta as our standout backbone and a great supporting cast. This year, we’ve got Gabbie and Tiana as our backbone for hitting, and we’ve got a great supporting cast. We’re also lucky that we have kids who are really good supportive team members.”
To win another opening game, Peterson didn’t point to firepower on offense or stability on defense. Instead her answer sounded pretty much like another life lesson message to her girls.
“We definitely have to be calm, in control and be able to play at a good tempo,” she said. “We have to play with rhythm, be strong as a team, and take it one play at a time.”