By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KEAAU — Konawaena came so close to chopping down Kamehameha, the league’s gold standard (in both divisions) for girls volleyball, but a relentless effort couldn’t overcome costly errors, and the hot hitting of Kaiu Ahuna.
Armed with a toolbox of so many shots, Ahuna blistered 35 kills all over the court, and the Warriors outlasted the Wildcats 25-17, 21-25, 29-27, 25-27, 15-13 in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation match on a humid Saturday at Koaia Gym that revealed strengths and weakness of both teams.
The 5-foot-8 junior outside hitter, owner of a smooth technical shot and equally valuable body control, was a model of consistency for the Division I Warriors (4-0), accumulating nine kills in the first set, followed by seven, eight, eight and three in the fifth game.
Ahuna blasted eight kills from the back row, including four in Game 1. When it was time to throw a changeup, she hit roll shots against Kona’s perimeter defense. When the visitors played a middle-up, she found deep corners. She also hit rockets through seams, down the line, and off blocks, often taking what the defensive coverage offered.
She also had a lot of help. Harley Woolsey provided a spark with 12 kills, dropping five in the second and four in the third set. Zoe Leonard made Kamehameha’s two-setter system look pretty good with six kills while making clean feeds to Ahuna.
“Ahuna’s our go-to person, obviously,” said Kamehameha coach Kyle Kaaa, who also noticed a few warts. “But we’ve got a lot of things to work on, like our aggressiveness. We’re not aggressive going to balls as we should be. We’re not playing well as a team. We’re giving away too many points, make a good play, followed by a bad play. That’s basically it.
“But I like how we came back after Game 4. Thats showed a lot of character. Still, we gave away points. We have to clean that up.”
The Warriors had more firepower (64 kills to Kona’s 59), and made fewer unforced errors (hitting, serving, ball-handling). And the latter part was pivotal — good for the home team and harmful for the Wildcats, who had 48 giveaway points; the hosts had 41 unforced errors. In the two games, the ‘Cats won, they had equal or less amount of giveaway points than the hosts.
“We still have work to do,” Kona coach Ainsley Keawekane said. “We’re a really young team. We need to grow more mature with mental stability. Mental toughness is not a problem. They’re mentally tough. My theme is no one can win a game by yourself. Six start and six finish and you need all six to win as a team.
“Mental stability is picking each other up, like, ‘I got you.’ It’s the team picking each up up, not one individual.”
Still, the Division II Wildcats (3-2) made it interesting, extending the Warriors to five sets because they’ve got a well-balanced offense, too. Outside hitter Chanelle Molina had 19 kills, McKenna Ventura added 12, setter Makani Wall had nine kills, including three in the final game, and middle Kaela Avanilla had eight kills.
“We played really hard and played with heart,” said Molina, also a basketball standout. “We never gave up and everyone kept each other up.”
Kona also runs a 6-2 system, offering three front-row hitters in every rotation. The other setter is Molina’s freshman sister Celena Molina, who had seven kills, and displayed soft hands, savvy instincts, and smart hitting like Leonard, a volleyball gym rat and regular participant of USA Junior Olympic competition.
Wall is a solid, too, and showed her court awareness when the Wildcats desperately needed someone to make a play down 13-7 in Game 5. The senior, one of three on the team, got a sky-hook dump shot to fall.
The Warriors followed with two hitting errors, and Wall went to the sky-hook dump shot again. It was 13-11, momentum swinging to the ‘Cats. Then Kona and Kamehameha traded hitting errors.
Next, Ahuna ripped two hard shots, but Kona dug each bullet, and on her third time — it was not a charm. She hit the antennae. At 14-13, Kamehameha was still a point away from victory, but Kona was creeping closer.
One other thing about Ahuna: she’s relentless, too. The All-BIIF Division I first-team pick from a year ago reached into her toolbox, swung away, and went deep corner for the marathon’s final point and her 35th kill.
The Warriors captured BIIF Division I championships from 2004 to ‘07, and have pocketed the last three. The one in 2004 was the program’s first league title, and before statewide classification was introduced in 2005.
The Wildcats last won the BIIF title in 1998. They’ve been the league’s Division II runner-up the last two years, going to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament for the first time since 1998.
They’re built for the long haul with a lot of young starters: Chanelle Molina is only a sophomore, as well as middle blocker Ventura and right-side hitter Mercedes Victor. Avanilla is a junior, Wall a senior and Celena Molina just a freshman. Libero Ela Seier is the only other senior starter.
With Ka‘u and Hawaii Prep still BIIF title contenders but not as strong — the Trojans graduated Marley Strand-Nicolaisen, the Ka Makani saw Ventura transfer to Kona — maybe it’s a good time for the young Wildcats to claim that long-awaited first-place feeling.
“My mom always told me to not count your chickens too early,” Keawekane said. “We’ve still got 10 weeks left in the season. We’re going to grow in those 10 weeks, but so will every other team.”
Kamehameha maybe goes one better with youth and big-time experience. Ahuna, Leonard, Woolsey, and right-side hitter Jeyci Kaili are juniors. Kamalu Makekau-Whittaker, the other setter, is a sophomore. Libero Kayla Flores is the only senior starter.
The Warriors are still the favorite to win a fourth BIIF Division I title. After all, they’ve got Ahuna and that valuable survival experience (five-set wins over Kona and Hawaii Prep). But unbeaten Hilo awaits on Wednesday, Oct. 2 at Hilo Armory.
“I like our two-setter system. We’ve got three hitters up front all the time,” Kaaa said. “Hopefully, we can put balls away. We should have something open every time.”