By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
There are few surprises with Konawaena senior wrestler Justin Raymond, who wins with speed, strength and technique. Basically, the whole package except for size. And as his coach would point out a history of hard work.
Raymond is 5 feet 1, often giving up leverage to opponents, but he’s undefeated in Big Island Interscholastic Federation competition at the 114-pound weight class.
At the all-schools meet on Saturday at Waiakea High’s Gym, Raymond pinned Waiakea’s Zac Correa with 1:05 left in the second period, exhibiting his skill set. Fast to get a reversal, strong enough to turn Correa on his back and smooth with textbook moves to lock down the arms.
It’s the second time Raymond has beaten Correa, who’ll likely be the top challenger at the BIIF championships, which will be held next Saturday at Kealakehe High.
“It was a good match,” said Raymond, several inches shorter than his Warrior foe. “Zac has improved too. I have to stay close and tie him up, so he can’t use his length on the outside. I just wanted to try my best out there.”
Raymond doesn’t talk much about himself. But his track record speaks volumes. He’s a two-time BIIF champion at 108 pounds, and took fourth as a freshman. He earned a bronze medal at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships last year.
He’s even better in judo. He’s a three-time BIIF champ, twice at 108 pounds and 114 as a junior. Raymond was second at states last season, so only a gold is missing from his collection.
“My goal is two gold medals, one in wrestling and one in judo,” he said. “It’ll take more hard work.”
In the preseason Hawaii Wrestling Officials tournament in December on Oahu, Raymond took second, his only loss of the season. It’s a prestigious tourney, not only because the best competition is there, but also because it helps rank wrestlers for state seedings. He also won at the preseason Maui Invitational Tournament, another elite event.
“That helped me see where I stand at the state level,” he said. “I have more work to do. I need to work on my strength more. Most of my opponents are taller and bigger. But I’m more comfortable at this weight, instead of cutting weight. “The competition is stronger and quicker. I have to go out and try my best, like always. ”
He makes it sound so simple. But there’s more to him than meets the eye. Kona coach Merrick Nishimoto knows better.
“There are a lot of things that stand out about him,” Nishimoto said. “He’s got a lot of speed. He’s strong as well for his weight class. Against the heavier kids at our practice, he’ll tie them up at 120 pounds. He’s got good technique and he’s the whole package.
“Opponents that are taller have better reach and leverage. If you’re not familiar with the sport, you may think it’s strength. But it’s body mechanics. That’s the main thing.”
The third-year coach compared it to lifting a heavy box. Bend over to lift and that’s the best way to get a bad back. The better way is to use the legs and incorporate the entire body, same thing with wrestling.
In fact, one part of Nishimoto’s philosophy is to keep things simple, rely on takedowns and pin combinations. He doesn’t want his Wildcats experimenting with fancy moves they saw on YouTube, even against newbie wrestlers.
“We keep it basic and conservative,” he said. “And we don’t want them to turn their back to the mat. We want them to be really efficient. Justin is one of the kids who has a good habit of doing all that.”
The other part of Nishimoto’s philosophy is old-fashioned hard work. He surveyed the wrestlers in their different colored uniforms on Waiakea’s navy blue mat, pointing out that at first glance everyone looks nearly the same — fit and ready to go for three two-minute rounds. But the difference, he noted, is under the hood.
He speaks from experience. Nishimoto did his Konawaena alma mater proud back in 1988, winning gold at states in the 105 division. His engine is in good shape because he lifts and runs with his wrestlers.
“Wrestling is one of the few sports where hard work and determination can overcome a competitor with more talent,” he said. “If you look at the most dominant wrestlers in the state, they’re the ones who are working out year-round.
“We tell the kids champions are made in the offseason and at practice. The league competition is only a small snapshot. That’s not where the work is done.”
Like her teammate, junior Aimee Shiraki has unfulfilled expectations, especially after a concussion at states last season led to a sixth-place finish in the 220 class. She forfeited half her matches, and even worse sat out for judo, the sport she started as a 6-year-old.
At least, she won gold at the BIIF championships last year. As a freshmen, she wrestled at 175 and was third at BIIFs, but didn’t place at states.
Unfortunately, Shiraki can’t shadow Raymond and go for a 4 for 4 quest for BIIF judo gold, with her lost sophomore year. As a freshman, she took first at 172 at BIIFs and placed third at states.
“Judo helps a lot for wrestling with throws and defense,” she said. “I definitely want to place higher in states. I’m working harder.”
There’s not much competition in the league for Shiraki, who was first at the Officials tournament and second at the MIT on the Valley Isle.
The tougher competition will be at states, where the Oahu talent pushes each other to get better. Shiraki needs to push herself. And she needs to practice and practice.
“She’s got a really good attitude and she’s pretty strong,” Nishimoto said. “With Aimee and Justin, their judo background has helped both. They’ve got excellent hip movement. That’s from judo.
“The past offseason Aimee has worked out a lot more. I lifted with her two times a week and we did running. She doesn’t get a lot of competition here. We have to throw her in with the boys at practice.”
The Konawaena coach can take comfort. Raymond and Shiraki both said they intend to work harder. That’s music to Nishimoto’s ears, because he knows that’s the best way to become a champion.