By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Ka mehameha’s water polo program is as strong as ever, but it’s tired of being caught in the middle. For the past three seasons, the Warriors have sort of been stuck between a rock and a soft place.
They’ve breezed through the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, going virtually untested. But therein lies the problem. When it has come to the Hawa ii High School Athletic Association tournament, the Warriors are getting closer, but they haven’t quite been ready for the quick rise in competition.
If coach Dan Lyons had his way in preseason practice, he and his team would’ve hopped on a plane every day so that they could cut their teeth against five-time state champion Punahou. He’d knock on the Buffanblu’s door and ask, “‘Can you beat the crap out of us?’ Because that’s how you get better.”’
If only for a weekend, Lyons recently got his wish when Kamehameha traveled to the Iolani Invitational to bump elbows with five of the other top teams in the state. The results, win or loss, were deemed a huge success by Lyons. So much so that he thinks his 2013 team has the potential to be his best yet.
“We’re way ahead of where we’ve been in the past because the girls have a dream of being successful at the state level,” he said. “To me, it was about getting the experience to play at a certain level. I’ve felt we’ve been on the cusp in the past.
“We always have a player to replace, but it seems like each year we’ve gotten a little bit better than the year before.”
Kamehameha is used to having a void to fill after a BIIF Player of the Year graduates, and this season it’s Kiana Krzyska and her league-leading 66 goals. Senior Sydney Plunkett, who scored 53 times in the BIIF in 2012, would appear to be the heir apparent.
“Kiana was a big loss,” Lyons said, “But Sydney can be the most dominant player in the BIIF. I think with the improvement of others players and addition of others, by the end of the season, I think we’ll not notice it.”
At Iolani, he was encouraged that Kamehameha didn’t rely on Plunkett by simply dumping to the ball inside to her at the 2-meter position for her to make a play. Sophomore Hali’a Nahale-a played some at 2-meter, scoring the game-winning goal against Kapolei. Nahale-a’s emergence allows Plunkett to move to the wing to make the Warriors more dynamic and diverse.
Lyons cited junior Acacia Trusdell and Chloe Martins-Keliihoomalu as two of the most improved players. Trusdell figures to be one of the Warriors’ best scoring threats, and Martins-Keliihoomalu saw increased playing time at states last year as the Warriors placed fifth. The offense is fine, but spearheaded by seniors Baba Manoha, Paula Imoto and junior goaltender Kelly Fitzgerald, it’s on the defensive end where the Warriors really excel.
Imoto, a four-year starter, is one of the fastest swimmers on the team.
“Along with Paula, I think collectively, we’re a faster team this year,” Lyons said. “Baba is one of the best 2-meter players in the state. Kelly was pretty good, but now I think she’s really good.”
Not that he’s taking the BIIF for granted. Heading into today’s 4 p.m. opener against Hawaii Prep at Naeole Pool, Lyons is busily figuring out ways to try and contain the Ka Makani’s Anu Nihipali and Bhillie Luciani. In his mind, he wouldn’t even be mad if HPA, which also plays Hilo at 2 p.m. in Keaau, pulled the upset.
“That’d mean better competition,” he said.
However, recent history has not been on the rest of the league’s side. Kamehameha’s gone through the past three league seasons unscathed, and it outscored opponents 180-50 last season.
That sort of domination has allowed Lyons to empty his bench early and often to get others playing time, and it pays off in better depth. This year he expects increased contributions from sophomore Pua Wong and junior Cassidy Fratinardo, and he’s also high on freshman Katelynn Kubo on a roster that has no shortage of options.
He said Wong has the potential be one of the team’s best defenders by the end of the season and a natural to step in for Alexia Osburn, the other starter that Kamehameha must replace.
“Most seasons I say I don’t know what we’ve got and we get better by the end of the year,” Lyons said. “This is the first year that I’ve really thought, ‘Wow, we can play pretty good.’”