By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Chanelle Molina doesn’t think she grew an inch from last year, but it’s pretty obvious and plain to see for opponents and anyone standing in a gym that the Konawaena sophomore has made a gigantic leap on the volleyball court.
“I don’t think I grew any. I don’t think so,” she said after Kona’s five-set Big Island Interscholastic Federation loss to Kamehameha on Saturday. “But I worked on my legs, doing hop drills to improve my jumping. It’s two inches better.”
That’s only one part of the 5-foot-6 outside hitter’s game. She’s well-rounded, especially her hitting. And even better, she’s the engine that drives her team, much like Kamehameha outside hitter Kaiu Ahuna.
Ahuna, a 5-8 junior, and Molina are alike in so many ways, except for the obvious traits of height and experience. Ahuna has been to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament the last two years, facing the best of the best in Division I; Molina has gone once as a freshman at the Division II stage.
But the similarities are strong. In a baseball analogy, both were throwers last season, swinging hard on every attempt, basically, trying to ram fastballs off double-blocks when a changeup roll shot over a wall might have been a better option.
“I know where to place the ball now,” Molina said. “Before I just knew how to hit. I’m going more positional this year.”
Molina is primarily a fastball pitcher, going for the fences most of the time, and offering her roll shot, top-spin sinker and line shot on a limited basis. But her progression as a hitter has made her far more difficult to defend, and what she lacks in height she compensates with athleticism — her jumping ability, timing and quick arm swing.
Throughout Kamehameha’s five-set win over Kona, Molina didn’t get the opportunity to hit against a one-on-one block. If she did, it was a blocking mistake because the Warriors hedged on Molina, making her life tough and giving more room to her teammates. Still, Molina piled up 19 kills.
After being the L2 (left-side No. 2 hitter) last season behind Shae Kanakaole (now at Whitman College), Ahuna has come into her own as the offense’s ace weapon. A year later, she’s as crafty as they come. Ahuna not only has all the shots, but she hits everything with different speeds. She seems to know when to take a flying charge from the back row to slam a ball, and when to take something off all her shots.
When Ahuna is in the back row, she’s still a hitting threat. She clobbered eight of her 35 kills from behind the 10-foot line against the Wildcats, smoking a few shots, and surveying the floor and hitting low-velocity line drives to targeted areas other times. (Molina had one back-row kill, a sinker to a soft spot in the defense.)
The only hitting tool neither showed at Koaia gym was a cut shot, cranking the outside of the ball, giving it arm-side run or a screwball effect that dives to the right side of the plate, or away from the cross-court digger or inside a block. But that’s small potatoes, especially for Ahuna.
What really makes her unique in the BIIF is her uncanny body control. When she doesn’t get a good run on a ball, the lanky Ahuna can still slap on mustard and hit an off-balanced shot hard with accuracy, sort of like a basketball player shooting a free throw while falling backward. Most players hit that shot into the net or a free ball.
When Molina rotates to the back row, her role changes but not her responsibilities. She’s the middle back or primary ball-handler, taking a major role in serve-receive and transition defense (when the ball is going back and forth).
She and her freshman sister Celena Molina, a 5-6 setter/hitter, switch off as the designated top passer. When one is in the front, the other is in the back, providing the Wildcats a balance of power hitting and precision passing in every rotation. (Celena Molina pounded seven kills.)
Since she was 12 years old, the older Molina has played for first-year Kona coach Ainsley Keawekane’s club team, Hoopa. She credits him for sharpening her game and thinking, mainly the part about moving the ball around.
In an interesting side note, Keawekane also coached Marley Strand-Nicolaisen at Hoopa. She smashed 29 kills as Ka‘u toppled Kona in four sets last season for the BIIF Division II title, the school’s first championship, and denying the Wildcats their first crown since 1998.
Asked what he appreciates about Molina, the Kona coach pointed out the obvious (her athleticism) then immediately followed with a more defining answer.
“I like her athleticism,” Keawekane said. “And I like her willingness to win. If she loses one game, she expects to win the next. She’s got a competitive fire. All coaches like that kind of player, someone who will learn what it takes to win and do anything to win. She doesn’t like losing.”
Apparently the two sisters share that same competitive gene.
“Celena wants to win and she has a passion for winning,” Molina said. “We don’t like to lose and we’ll do anything to win again.
“She’s got really hands. When she sets, there’s no spin on the ball. That shows that she’s got good hands.”
Molina closed her freshman season with a flourish. She led Kona with 14 kills in the loss to Ka‘u for the BIIF title. Then she landed on the All-BIIF Division II second team.
The Wildcats also finished seventh at states, beating Kaimuki for the consolation title. She had fine performances on Oahu. She had 14 kills in a first-round, five-set loss to La Pietra, and 11 kills against Kaimuki.
Then she jumped to her favorite sport and produced a dominant season for coach Bobbie Awa’s basketball team, leading the Wildcats to another BIIF Division I championship, and stamping her presence at states with a string of high-scoring games.
More on that in a minute.
As she stood in an emptying Koaia Gym late on that Saturday afternoon, Molina thought about her proudest moment as a freshman. It had nothing to do with awards or on-the-court achievement in her two sports. Instead, she pointed to personal growth.
“It’s volleyball. I’m proud that I stayed more emotionally in control,” she said. “This year, I’ve picked that up even more. I don’t worry about the score. I just keep playing hard.”
Molina, with All-BIIF honors as hard evidence, is good in volleyball. But she’s even better in basketball. She landed on the All-BIIF first team at guard, and led the Wildcats in scoring in each game at states.
In the quarterfinals, she racked up 18 points in a 40-38 win over Mililani. In the semifinals, Molina scored 12 points in the 47-37 victory over Iolani. She scored 16 points in Kona’s 45-39 loss to Kamehameha-Kapalama for the championship. Molina was named to the All-Tournament team.
During the summer, she spent one month on the mainland playing with three different teams, facing a higher caliber of competition and working with new teammates — an experience she absorbed, especially the latter part.
“Basketball is my passion,” said Molina, who added that her sister will also play BIIF hoops. “I got a chance to work on my game and get scouted by college coaches.
“I played point guard and worked with different people. It’s how life is. In life, you’ll work with different people. You have to get along and work with them, just like your teammates.”
From the other side of the net, Kamehameha coach Kyle Kaaa had a nice vantage point watching Molina soar in the air with her jumping ability or cover the court with her quickness. He and everyone else in the gym that day saw a Wildcat who is not only athletic, but also something else.
“She can jump and she’s re ally athletic,” Kaaa said. “She plays smart and can pass. She’s got great movement, really good footwork.
“She’s something special. That’s for sure.”