By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kamehameha senior Noelle Pohina knows her family’s Big Island Interscholastic Federation wrestling history by heart — sister Pomai won gold last season and as a freshman while brother Michael captured titles as a junior and senior.
The bar has been set pretty high for Pohina, who will compete in the 125-pound weight class at the league championships. Last season, she placed third at BIIFs in the same division.
She’s won all of her league matches, except for three losses to the same opponent, Honokaa senior Cortney Oshiro.
“She’s used head and arm moves that have led to pins,” Pohina said. “My only BIIF losses have been to her. When she ties me up, my coaches tell me to move in a circle and use her momentum. She’s tough.
“My dad (Michael Sr.) tells me it’s not about who you wrestle. Your biggest opponent is yourself. Wrestling is a mental thing. My coaches, teammates and parents all throw their support behind me every week and believe in me.
“I want to do my best, have fun and have a good attitude. The main reason I got into wrestling was to make my parents proud. I come from a wrestling family and the greatest feeling is I’ll look into the stands after I step off the mat and they’ll be supporting me.”
Cary Masuko was a volunteer coach last season. He’s the new coach, but has a history with the school. He was the boys coach from 2003 to ’07.
He knows about the Pohina family history, too. But he also knows victory comes in many forms, not just the color of a medal. He’s seen the work Pohina has put in, making herself better as well as her teammates.
“She comes from a line of BIIF champions, but she’s her own wrestler with her own style,” Masuko said. “I think good things will come at the end for her. She has an unbelieveable work ethic. She’s willing to stay late and ask questions to get better.
“She’s quiet and leads by example. She prepares well. That’s great for herself and her teammates. She’s at her best in pressure situations.”
Kamehameha is the three-time defending BIIF champion. There are 12 wrestlers, including seven seniors, on the roster, not enough bodies to fill the 14 weight divisions but more than most teams. Other schools get a half-dozen girls, if they’re lucky.
The Warriors have the potential to pick up points with their depth, and with Pohina and fellow seniors Welina Tong and Nellie Towata. Last season at BIIFs, Tong took gold and Towata was second.
Tong was an instant hit in the 175 class last year. As a first-time wrestler, she also finished third at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament, the only returning Warrior, either boys or girls, with a medal.
Like Pohina, she’s undefeated in the league, except for losses to one opponent, Ka‘u’s Shavon Mello-Waiwaiole. But that’s two defeats in the 220 division because there’s not a whole lot of competition in the league in her weight class.
“I’ve improved a lot from last year, physically and mentally,” Tong said. “I know what to expect and push toward that. The three returnees, we stick together and push each other. We help each other and the beginners. That’s the rule as seniors.”
She got into wrestling by accident. Last year, Tong was late to the first day of tryouts for basketball. Then her former teammate Jasmine Iuta (155 defending champ), now at Waiakea, convinced her to give wrestling a try.
“I started doing well and thought, ‘Wow, wrestling is not what other people make it out to be.’ It’s about a lot of heart and mental toughness,” Tong said. “It’s what you put into it you get out of it. It’s head high and heart strong and do the best I can at all my matches and especially at practice.
“I see all my matches as a state match. I’m hoping to capture BIIFs and do better than third at states and hopefully I’ll get better.”
Towata, a BIIF runner-up in the 98 division, got pushed into wrestling by Pohina last year. Towata competes in the 105 class and has one loss to Hilo’s Nina Baen, a rookie wrestler.
“The Hilo girls are really aggressive,” Towata said. “Wrestling is a really good sport. It shows you where you stand and I like the pressure because it makes you better.”
She’s just as quick with a smile as she is with a single-leg takedown. Last season, she lost to Pahoa’s Maile Tadeo at BIIFs. Towata has moved up in weight and like any good sport praised her former foe.
“We’re friends off the mat,” Towata said. “I think she can be first again.
“My No. 1 goal is to be a BIIF champion. Anybody can be a BIIF champion. It’s who wants it more. Noelle has pushed me hard as a friend to make sure I get it. She’s a cheerleader and is always there to help me out.”
Her coach likes the energy Towata brings and not just on the mat.
“She’s a go-getter and our vocal leader,” Masuko said. “She’s a cheerleader, a counselor and a big sister. She’s a cool and bubbly person, and that translates a lot to the team’s personality.”
Meanwhile, Kiana Perreira-Keawekane came out for wrestling as a sophomore, sat out last season and rejoined the team for her senior season in the 220 class, giving Tong a practice partner.
She’ll have stiff competition at BIIFs going against Konawaena junior Aimee Shiraki, the defending champ, and Ka‘u’s Mello-Waiwaiole.
But what Masuko appreciates, more than a body to fill a weight class, is another Warrior willing to work hard, like Pohina, Tong and Towata. That only adds to the atmosphere, where family support is the best feeling and the bond that powers the team.
“Kiana’s another hard worker,” Masuko said. “She expects a lot out of herself. We have to remind her that it’s one day at a time, one move at a time. She’s made that commitment.
“The good thing is they’re all coachable young people. They all contribute to the wrestling program on what it takes, and not just learning the moves, but getting your grades and the time you put in. It’s about developing as a person. That will benefit them beyond their senior year.”