By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Surrounded by a purple sea of inexperience, it’s easy to pick out Makua Lani’s one and only seasoned volleyball player.
When Karissa Komo isn’t giving the Lions a hitting threat, she’s diving, digging, setting, scrambling, coaching, directing traffic and doing anything else she can to make sure the Lions get the ball back over the net.
Komo’s doing a lot of heavy lifting as she carries Makua Lani through its maiden volleyball voyage in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, but the junior wouldn’t have it any other way.
“As my mom says to me, it’s a new life experience and it teaches me patience and I get to teach others,” Komo said.
She provided the inspiration for the small West Hawaii private school even fielding a volleyball team in the first place. Passionate about the game, she went to her club coach, Ainsley Keawekane, and convinced him to start the Lions’ program.
“I wanted to show everyone why I love it so much,” she said.
There was one noteworthy obstacle: Komo’s not just the sole club player on the team, she’s the only Lion who has played volleyball at all.
“All the other girls are pretty much brand new,” assistant coach Aaron Alapai said. “No volleyball experience. Period.
“But Karissa rallied the kids and has been very supportive.”
Makua Lani may not have much of a volleyball heritage, but when Komo needed to recruit players she was able to turn to many of her teammates in soccer, the hallmark sport of Makua Lani athletics. The girls team has qualified for states the past three seasons, winning their first-round match in each instance to reach the Hawaii High School Athletic Association quarterfinals.
“(We have) a lot of soccer players playing volleyball,” Komo said of a contingent that includes seniors Tiffany Nakamura, Nai‘a Ilagan Willard, Suzanne Adams and Lydia Wood and sophomores Rachel Won and Keili Dorn.
Throw in rugby player Kylie Keliia‘a, a sophomore, and the Lions aren’t lacking in athletes.
However, Komo’s next task was to get her teammates to think with their hands instead of their feet.
“Do not kick the ball if it falls in front of you,” Komo said of her biggest challenge. “Some players’ instincts are to kick the ball before it drops.”
When it comes to athletic background, Komo’s not much different from her teammates.
Ask her how long she’s played volleyball, and the answer comes quick: three years
As for how many years she’s played soccer? Now she has to really think.
“Hold on … 11.”
That soccer pedigree showed last year at states as Komo, an all-BIIF first-team selection at sweeper, scored in regulation and then starred in penalty kicks with a goal and a pair of saves at goalkeeper to help the Lions knock off Leilehua.
Not that Makua Lani is harboring any such lofty aspirations this year in volleyball.
“It’s not about winning this season, it’s about having fun,” Komo said. “I don’t want to be the one doing everything, I want to show the girls that they can do it and have confidence so that they’ll love it like I do.”
Alapai says the coaching staff instructs the team not to lean too heavily on Komo and only use her as as “last resort.”
Still, in a recent match at St. Joseph, Komo made sure her teammates were properly aligned and she had to do much of the work to keep points alive. She finished with 11 kills, while her next closest teammate had two.
The Lions lost in a sweep to fall to 0-7, and while the hour-long match took only a fraction of the time compared with how long it takes Makua Lani to travel to and from travel Hilo, Alapai says the team has met its goal.
“They’re having a great time,” he said. “That’s the focus. Have fun. You’re going to learn the game better when you’re having fun.”
The Lions may take their lumps on the volleyball court, but perhaps they’ll gain a measure of revenge during the winter sports season on the soccer field.
“I think so,” Komo said, before turning modest. “But I don’t know. It all depends on how we play. We’ll try our best and that’s all you can ask for.”
Spoken like a true teacher.