By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Kamehameha girls have won the last five Big Island Interscholastic Federation judo championships, relying on depth to fill the different weight classes and pile up valuable points.
The Warriors are in good shape once again, with 12 girls on the roster, including four returning BIIF medalists in Nellie Towata (98 pounds, silver), Tiari Carreira (109, silver), Noelle Pohina (129, bronze) and Kailey Lapenia (172, bronze).
All of the judoka are seniors. There’s no better motivation than a last chance to grab gold or extend the school’s title streak.
“It looks pretty good this year,” coach Jenna Aina said. “The boys have a good chance for the BIIF title as well. I’m pretty excited to see how the season will turn out.”
But Hilo is standing in the way with a roster of 10 girls, including five BIIF medalists in junior Shaylyn Arakaki (98, gold), junior Seysha Bondaug (109, bronze), junior Lahi Kanakanui (139, gold), sophomore Kathleen Shon (139, silver), and Lia Nakamura (172, gold).
However, Arakaki and Bondaug are on the disabled list, injured during the wrestling season. At the BIIF championships, Arakaki, in her first year in wrestling, won a title in the 97 weight class while Bondaug was second at 113.
Katie Funai adds a little depth. The sophomore tried out for wrestling and won a BIIF title at 109. The rookie judoka could be a comfortable fit at her familiar 109 weight class, if she shortens her learning curve again.
“She doesn’t give up and picks it up pretty fast,” Hilo coach Jacob Shon said. “She’s already doing moves a lot of people don’t attempt in their second year. She’s a really quick learner. I have a feeling she’ll do pretty well. Her mat work doesn’t need touch up.”
The BIIF team championships will be held Saturday, April 13 at Konawaena High. It’s all about school spirit, personal pride and a BIIF trophy to showcase.
The BIIF individual championships will be held the following week at Waiakea High. It’s for berths, usually three per weight class, to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships.
Last year, Nakamura claimed gold at states and so did Konawaena’s Tanalei Louis, now a senior, in the 129 division. Lapenia took home bronze.
Unlike wrestling, judo allows players from the same school to compete in the same weight division. Teams spread out players in the different weight classes for the BIIF team championships, and usually encourage judoka to compete at their favored weight at the individual championships.
Most of the Kamehameha girls started as rookies, coming over from wrestling and working hard to turn themselves into BIIF title contenders.
“I think it’s great that they want to see something new and it’s good to teach them fresh,” Aina said. “First of all it’s all about safety. Before we teach throws, they have to learn how to fall. We try to keep it simple for the people who just started. Each person has a different body type and different throws match a certain person.
“They get to compete with each other and it gives them a chance to prove themselves. Unlike wrestling, if you have a bad day in a wrestle-off, you can’t compete (in a BIIF wrestling meet). In judo, all you have to do is come that weekend, be healthy and have a gi. Judo gives all the kids a chance, rather than limiting it to one person. And anything can happen in judo.”
That’s the fun part about judo, which features one four-minute round. It’s unpredictable. One mistake and a hard throw to the mat, called an ippon, and your day is done.
Aina appreciates her team’s enthusiasm.
“Nellie is always spontaneous. She’s very happy to be there and has that drive. She wants to do well,” Aina said. “Tiari is really focused during practices, and Noelle is more like Nellie, happy to be there and wants to enjoy her last year.”
Hilo coach Shon, who attends UH-Hilo, is the brother of Kathleen. His sister will likely go up against Kanakanui at 139, again, at least in the BIIF individual championships. He’s a 2008 Hilo graduate, who took silver at the BIIF championships at the 220 weight class, and offered a scouting report on his two players.
“Lahi is really strong for her weight class. She knows how to throw with her weight,” he said. “She has good reaction time. If she sees herself in a bad position, she can block and counter it.
“I’m a little biased but I always think Kathleen can improve. She’s quick on her feet and her gripping technique is really strong. When she wants a certain grip, she knows how to get it and hold it.”
Hilo and Kamehameha are lucky to have at least 10 girls, the same amount of weight classes, ranging from 98 to 220 pounds. Waiakea has only three girls, but at least one is a defending BIIF champion in junior Skye Matsuura (115, gold).
“She only joined last year,” Waiakea coach Jason Tanaka said. “But she picked it up fast and she’s really determined and focused. She’s a hard worker and it shows in her competition. It’s only been two years, but she looks like a seasoned player.”
Don’t blink because the BIIF season will breeze to a fast finish. There are only five meets, including the team and individual championships. The first stop is at 10 a.m. today at Hilo Armory.
Like Aina, Shon is intrigued about the season.
“I hope we can do better than last year. We didn’t make it to the BIIF team championships,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of returnees and a whole bunch of juniors. We’ve got a few freshmen, and we’ve got experience. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.”