By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Welina Tong’s strong rookie performance last year on Oahu caught some opposing coaches off-guard, prompting a few of them to wonder just who this upstart was.
That wasn’t such an issue her second time around. If they didn’t know who Tong was then, they definitely do now.
Tong, a Kamehameha senior, carried the Big Island banner Saturday night at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association wrestling championships, pinning Kapolei’s Jocelyn Tabion for the 175-pound title at Neal Blaisdell Center in Honolulu.
“Last match, senior year, this was it,” Tong said. “Wanted to go out strong. It was pretty sweet. Victory was finally mine.”
Warriors assistant Keith Laeha likes to remind Tong that she has six minutes to work with in each match, but she never had to be all that patient over two days at states. Tong, a two-time Big Island Interscholastic Federation champion, won all four of her matches by pin.
Perhaps her toughest test came in the semifinals against Baldwin’s Hailey Namauu, who wound up third.
“She was very fit and looked really athletic,” Tong said. “I psyched myself out.”
Even so, she managed to pin Namauu at 3 minutes, 10 seconds.
Tong was one of six BIIF wrestlers to survive through to Saturday morning’s semifinals, but she was the only league member left standing in the finals.
However, with her Big Island cheering section behind her, Tong felt far from alone.
“I felt a lot of pressure to represent the whole Big Island,” she said. “But everyone was super supportive. Even people I don’t normally talk to were wishing me good luck. To have that support from the island was great.”
The win came at 1:25, when Tong performed a double-leg takedown and used a half-nelson for the pin.
Not too shabby for someone who just took up wrestling last year “by mistake.”
“I wasn’t supposed to really,” she said. “The coaches were supportive and said I have potential.”
Tong doesn’t play any other sports at Kamehameha, but she said likes wrestling because it’s an individual pursuit.
“You set your own goal,” she said. “It’s what you make with it.”
That she made the most of it doesn’t surprise Laeha at all. He noticed that Tong was a natural from the outset.
“Her work ethic is amazing,” Laeha said. “She’s so coachable and worked so hard the past two years.”
Tong added gold to the state bronze she won last year. That result was more of a surprise, especially to some of the assembled coaches.
“A lot of them were asking me, “Who is this girl?”’ Laeha said. “Most of them know who the top girls are. When I told them Welina was new, they were like, “Are you kidding?”
Her victory Saturday means that Kamehameha has had at least one wrestler win gold in each of the the past four state championships.
Konawaena’s Tanalei Louis (135) and Hilo’s Kaylan Kanakanui (140) each lost semifinals but rebounded to win bronze, as did the Wildcats’ Justin Raymond (114). Two other wrestlers who advanced to Saturday’s championship bracket, Waiakea’s Jasmine Iuta (155) and Kealakehe’s Wade Booth (130), finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
Konawaena’s Aimee Shiraki wrestled out of the consolation bracket to win bronze at 220, pinning Ka’u’s Shavon Mello-Waiwaiole in the third-place match.
Keaau’s Haaheo Chan took fourth at 189, Waiakea Conrad Marks (135) and Kayed Rodrigues both won fifth-place matches and Cougars heavyweight Zephaniah Pavao was sixth.
In a girls fifth-place match at 135, Ka’u’s Leah Mello-Waiwaiole pinned Hawaii Prep’s Loke Ching.
Kamehameha-Kapalama won the boys title, while Pearl City claimed the girls crown. No BIIF teams cracked the top 10. The Konawaena girls were 11th, and the Waiakea boys 12th.