KEAAU — Kolby Akiyama counts his baseline defense as his strong suit in a tennis game that’s growing by the minute. But running a close second is the Kamehameha junior’s ability to think on his feet.
Akiyama played a lead role as the Warriors defeated Hilo 3-2 in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation playoff tiebreaker on Wednesday that doubled as a musical chairs competition.
After the regular season, Hilo, Kamehameha and Keaau each finished with a 5-2 record. The Vikings had the lucky draw and got a bye.
On Tuesday, the Warriors beat Keaau 3-2. Then it was down to two for the last spot to the BIIF team championships, which will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Holua Resort.
On a windy day that featured 14 mph gusts, Kamehameha went into the match with a 1-0 lead over Hilo because the Vikings only have six players and forfeited the No. 3 doubles.
It was the same deal in the previous meeting. But that time, Hilo’s No. 1 singles player, junior Noah Hong, prevailed over Akiyama in three sets and the Vikings produced the same 3-2 score.
In the rematch, Akiyama changed game plans, relying more on pinpoint accuracy than swing-for-the-fences power, to thump Hong 6-3, 6-1. During the regular season, Hong won 0-6, 6-3, 11-9.
East No. 2 seed Kamehameha (7-2) faces West No. 1 Hawaii Prep (6-0). In the other match, it’s East No. 1 Waiakea (7-0) vs. East No. 2 Konawaena (5-1).
In the girls field, it’s East No. 1 Waiakea (6-0) vs. West No. 2 Kona (5-1), and West No. 1 Kealakehe (6-0) vs. East No. 2 Kamehameha (5-1).
Kamehameha coach Shirley Kagawa and Hilo coach Jared Yamanaka each pointed to the No. 1 singles as the swing match.
“Kolby has worked hard to improve,” Kagawa said. “He’s very committed and coachable. He’s quick to the net and has a good stroke. He’s getting more confidence in every game.”
Akiyama and Hong hit far more unforced errors than winners, and each took turns serving into and with the wind. The two juniors often traded shots for nice mini-rallies, hitting deep balls into the corners and waiting for the other to make a mistake.
But the Warrior was better than the Viking on attacking the second serve. Hong goes for contact, and Akiyama charged and forced his foe to return with a backhand stroke, which led to points and big cushions.
Akiyama also switched tactics in the first set after taking a 2-0 lead. He started hitting drop shots and sharp angles for unforced errors. Then he went back to his baseline game, and momentum swung his way.
“The last time I tried to be aggressive on his second serve and hit a lot of errors,” Akiyama said. “I tried to hit hard and dictate points, but that didn’t work. I was disappointed I lost last time. I just focused on the match and worked to get the win.”
Kagawa, who’s co-coach with her husband Richard, also pointed to the mental part of the game as a key.
“The boys were really prepared and took nothing for granted,” she said. “They were prepared mentally and not hitting sporadically. I told the boys, ‘As long and you improve every game, every set we’re proud because you’re moving forward.”
That especially applies to Akiyama, who grew up playing baseball, basketball and soccer. But he tried out for tennis last year, and was on the doubles team, working on his game and waiting his turn to jump into singles.
Shaun Kagawa, a 2013 Kamehameha graduate, was the No. 1 singles player last season. He returns to the SMU football team in June. He’s a volunteer coach and sharpens Akiyama when the two scrimmage.
“When I tried out for tennis it was fun, and I don’t only want to go to BIIFs, but states,” Akiyama said. “Last year, I lost in doubles in the first round at BIIFs. I’m going to private lessons with Ryan Ideta and I want to qualify for states.”
The BIIF individual championships, held next week, will determine the league’s qualifiers for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament.
Akiyama (6-2), with losses to Hong and Waiakea’s Sam Matsuura, will get tested against a tough Ka Makani squad. He’ll likely face HPA’s No. 1 singles player, J.J. Minakata, who was third at BIIFs last year.
“It should be fun,” Akiyama said. “I like playing against faster tempo players. I had my best match against Sam.”
At least the season is not over for the Vikings (6-3), who still have the BIIF individual championships. Yamanaka plans to throw three doubles in his lineup. In something of a silver lining, he saw the tiebreaker match as extra experience.
“It was a good match. We played tough and fought for every point,” he said. “We’re a young team with only one senior (Ryne Sako). We play hard and work hard. We just need to get that experience.”
Like Hilo, the Warriors are young and inexperienced with only two years of tennis at the most. Only doubles player Conrad Salazar is a senior. No. 2 singles Dustyn Lyman-Kekaualua and No. 1 doubles Israel Stillman/Kairos Pacheco are all juniors.
Kamehameha’s girls got into the BIIF team championships, so it was good motivation for the boys to follow suit. And like Yamanaka, Kagawa believes the two-match musical chairs and BIIF team and individual championships will sprinkle much-needed experience on her youthful squad.
“The boys wanted to go to Kona with the girls already going,” she said. “I’m happy they get to experience going to Kona.”
BIIF tennis results
Singles: Kolby Akiyama, Kamehameha, def. Noah Hong, Hilo, 6-3, 6-1
Singles: Ryne Sako, Hilo, def. Dustyn Lyman-Kekaualua, 6-0, 6-4
Doubles: Israel Stillman/Kairos Pacheco, Kamehameha, def. Stien Lim/Kenji Emerson, 6-2, 6-0
Doubles: Jack Petrison/Andrew Ouye, Hilo, def. Dominik Pajimola/Conrad Salazar, 6-2, 6-1
Doubles: Hilo default