By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
When it comes to chasing gold, Kamehameha senior wrestlers Charlie Aina III, Kamalu Wright and Kema Chin are all in the same boat.
Each has one last chance to capture first place at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation championships, after finishing runner-up in their respective weight classes a year ago — Aina at 130 pounds, Wright at 114 and Chin at 189.
The Warriors also have a pair of strong medal contenders in Troy Gibson and Kamalani Crum. The two juniors got bronze at BIIFs last year at the 135 and 215 weight classes, respectively.
Aina is heading into his second league finals in a different weight division. He’s dropped down to 125, where his top competition is Kealakehe’s Seannacy McNeill and Honokaa’s David Yagong. Aina has beaten McNeil twice and Yagong once.
“Last year was my first time in the finals and I’ve trained hard and believe in my skills,” Aina said. “I’ve been staying after practice, practicing drills on my own and running. All that extra time I put in helps.”
Aina’s work ethic shows up on the mat and makes him a tough wrestler, coach Brendan Courtot noted, especially on defense when opponents think they’re about to put him away.
“He’s hard to score on and doesn’t give up points easily,” Courtot said. “He’s scrappy and he’s really good in difficult situations.”
Unlike Aina, Wright is going up a weight division. He’ll compete at 120, where the favorite is Hilo senior Federico Vento, who has defeated Wright twice.
Wright will also see a familiar face at 120 in Konawaena’s Warren Buenavista, who was third at 114 last year. Wright topped Buenavista at the Waiakea meet last Saturday.
“I beat Federico last year, but he’s improved this year,” Wright said. “He’s good at flips and caught me a couple times for five-point moves. I landed on my back and he held me. Warren is really fast and has good technique.
“I’ll do the best I can. Hopefully, I get up there and have a good final match. I have to work on my defense and make sure they don’t get wrist control.”
Courtot pointed out the simple fact that sometimes the other guy works just as hard and gets a little better, which can be the difference between medal colors.
Still, execution trumps everything, especially in a one-shot deal like the BIIF championships.
“Kamalu can elevate himself. It’s a matter of eliminating mistakes,” Courtot said. “He’s worked just as hard as the other guys. He won’t be outworked because he’s put his time in.”
If Aina is the favorite at 125 and Wright an underdog at 120, then Chin is probably a coin flip at 189, where his top threat is Honokaa senior Kainoa Lyman, who settled for bronze last season.
In an earlier match, Chin downed Lyman on points, 17-4 in three rounds. They also squared off in football. Lyman was an All-BIIF first team pick on the offensive and defensive lines while Chin was an O-lineman.
Chin takes an egalitarian viewpoint while assessing his competition. He may be a top dog, but as far as he’s concerned, no one has gotten on an elevator and is above anyone else.
“I look at everyone in my weight division as an equal,” he said. “I try to win one match at a time. Upsets have happened in the past.”
That’s the type of conservative approach that would make Bill Belichick proud. However, Chin does allow emotion to swing into the conversation. After all, a gold medal is no small feat — something earned, never given.
“It’s a big deal to get first,” he said. “You just have to focus for here and now.”
Courtot appreciates the hard work Chin has clocked in. None of the Warriors reached medal contention at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament last year.
“He comes to morning practice, and he watches wrestling at home,” Courtot said. “He challenges himself and he’s put the time in to get where he’s at. He has a legitimate shot at placing high at the state level.”
Gibson will make a jump to 140, and so too will Waiakea’s Keoni Rice, who was second at 135 last year. Pahoa sophomore Reed Hayashikawa is another worthy title contender.
“I beat Reed earlier in the season, but he’s gotten a lot better at wrestling,” Gibson said. “I lost to Keoni twice. Overall, he’s a good wrestler. I have to work on my moves a little more, both offense and defense.
“It’ll be a shame to lose all our good senior wrestlers. When you wrestle against them at practice, that’s how you get better. I want those guys to have a good year.”
Maybe the three seniors — Aina, Wright and Chin — will be in the same boat again, bringing home gold.