By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
With hometown support in the background, Kamehameha-Hawaii and Hilo will be in the spotlight as the Big Island takes its turn hosting the 46th annual Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I girls state volleyball championships.
The Warriors know the drill about playing the best of the best at states. They’ve qualified every year since 2004, their second season on the varsity. During that nine-year run, they have yet to reach the semifinals or win an opening match.
The Interscholastic League of Honolulu — with two-time defending state champion Punahou and Kamehameha-Kapalama — keeps getting in the way, and has monopolized the state championship, pocketing every one since 2002.
The Oahu Interscholastic Association schools are pretty tough, too. Kahuku swept St. Joseph for the state title in 2002 at Hilo Civic. That St. Joe team was powered by four future Division I college players: Sarah Mason (Oregon/Hawaii), Ashley Hanohano, Lindsey Lee and Jazmin Paakaula (Fairfield University in Connecticut).
Because of the way the brackets are set up, no matter what, the Big Island Interscholastic Federation champion and runner-up will be matched up against the ILH champion or No. 2 powerhouse somewhere down the road, if the path of elimination is avoided.
That’s the case again.
In something of a worst-case scenario, BIIF runner-up Hilo (14-2) plays OIA No. 3 Kahuku (13-2) at 7 p.m. today at Koaia Gym. If the Vikings win, they would face No. 1 seed Kamehameha-Kapalama (15-1) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Koaia Gym in the quarterfinals.
At Keaau High’s gym in the other bracket, No. 3 Kamehameha-Hawaii (16-0) plays the Punahou (13-3)/Farrington (11-4) winner at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals.
In a best-case scenario, the Vikings and Warriors perform in front of their home crowd. Hilo has four seniors: Amanda Loeffler, Evalani Toledo, Angel Alameda and Keala Wilbur-Gabriel, all starters. Kamehameha has five seniors: Anuhea Leite-Ah Yo, Khaila Moke-Sakamoto, Duchess Rapoza, Cashman Aiu and Kayla Flores, the latter two are starters.
“That’s something different. We’ve never experienced playing at home,” said Kamehameha-Hawaii coach Kyle Kaaa, who took over in 2009. “At least our girls will have friends and family watching them play. I like the fact we get to play at home, not necessarily at our gym, but at least playing on the Big Island. It’ll be exciting to play in front of our families.
“With the home crowd, the girls get more excited. It makes a difference. They get more pumped up to play.”
The Big Island last hosted the Division I state tourney in 2007. Back then, No. 4 seed Kamehameha-Hawaii lost to Kahuku in straight sets in the quarterfinals, and Waiakea was swept by Roosevelt in the first round.
Last season as the No. 4 seed Kamehameha-Hawaii fell to OIA runner-up Mililani in the quarterfinals, and to Moanalua in consolation. Hilo lost in five sets to Pearl City in the first round, topped Kalani in consolation, and fell to Castle for seventh place.
In 2011, the Warriors and Vikings both took two-game exits. Kamehameha-Hawaii, the No. 3 seed, lost to Kamehameha-Kapalama in the quarters; Hilo dropped to Moanalua in the first round.
The Warriors had the school’s best finish at states in 2010, Kaaa’s second year, beating Kahuku for fifth place. That season they were the No. 4 seed and drew Kaiser in the quarterfinals, with a potential semifinal battle against Punahou. The stars seemed aligned for an opening triumph.
But the Cougars took down the Warriors in five sets, despite a highlight performance from Katelynne Paleka-Kennedy, who pounded 22 kills. That Kaiser team was led by Nikki Taylor, who slammed 19 kills. She’s now playing for the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine.
The running joke in the BIIF is that the best route at states is to be the league runner-up. In 2010, Waiakea outlasted Castle in the first round and No. 2 seed Kamehameha-Maui in the quarterfinals, then lost to ILH runner-up and eventual state champion Kamehameha-Kapalama in the semifinals — the last time a BIIF team reached the Final Four.
BIIF runner-up Waiakea’s strength that season was its ball-control (serving, passing, setting), the bread-and-butter skill-set that often separates state champions from everyone else. Ashia Joseph provided accurate setting and Keirsa Pakani-Tsukiyama did the same with passing and hitting.
The Waiakea graduates are now playing college ball. Joseph (2011 class), who led College of Southern Idaho to the junior college national title last year, is a setter at Division II Cal-State East Bay. Pakani-Tsukiyama (2012) is at Western New Mexico, also a Division II school, along with former Waiakea teammate Kassie Kagawa (2010).
To make school history and seize an opening match at states, Kaaa is counting on his Warriors to step up their game.
“Winning that first game, that has to be your best game,” he said. “We have to pass well. In past years, we have not passed well in that first game. The past week at practice we’ve focused hard on bettering our serve-receive passing and refining things.
“If I had to describe our team with two words it would be resiliency and perseverance. They have the ability to come back. Every game we’ve been challenged and behind they’ve pulled themselves out of that hole. They’re resilient and persistent about doing things.
“It’s going to come down to passing. We’ve been working on our serving and serve-receive at practice. That’s been our focus the last three weeks. Serve and serve-receive, those are the two main things we do every day. You’re talking 90 percent of practice. We’ve been working really hard at our passing. I’m excited to see what happens.”
To sharpen the passing, junior Zoe Leonard was moved from setter to right-side hitter, serving as a primary ball-handler in more rotations. The other top passers are libero Flores and junior outside hitter Kaiu Ahuna.
“Zoe’s been a huge help. She’s a good passer, a good serve-receive passer,” Kaaa said. “It’s one of the reasons we took her off setting and made her a passer in every rotation except for one in the passing lanes. It’s been a huge difference.
“We’re a better team with her passing and Kamalu (Makekau-Whittaker) setting. The hitters are used to Kamalu setting. I like the way Kamalu is running the team, the way she gets to balls out of system and hustles to it. She touches every second ball and she’s doing well at that.”
The fifth-year coach also pointed to the improvement of Flores, who over the summer played club ball with Pilipaa, coached by Chris Leonard, Zoe’s dad and a Kamehameha assistant.
“She worked hard not only on the court, but in the weight room, was running and conditioning,” Kaaa said. “A lot of that paid off for her this year. Zoe, Kayla and Ahuna are all equally good passers right now at this stage.
“But what I pointed out to the team is how valuable our backups are. They’ve stepped up in practice and made our first team better. That’s important to make our starters a better team.”
Sometimes, no matter how hard a team plays victory is still elusive and the loss painful, especially if it’s so close to winning a school’s first opening match at states.
Then Kaaa thinks back to 2010, when Kaiser survived against his Warriors in a five-set marathon at a neutral site, King Kekaulike High’s Gym on Maui.
“I remember that game clearly,” he said. “It’s one of the games the girls did their best and left it all on the floor. I told them, ‘We couldn’t ask any more of you guys.’
“I liked that game, even if we didn’t come out with the win. It was the best game our girls ever played.”