KEAAU — Candace Castillo can cheer with the best in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation.
She was a member of the Keaau cheerleading team that won the league title in 2012 and last season.
That was her background in sports, until the junior tried out for the judo team, which hosted a dual meet Saturday at the Cougars Gym.
“I lost to Hilo but I feel like I put up a good fight,” said Castillo, who competes in the 103-pound weight class. “It’s my first year and I’m having a lot of fun. I decided to try out for the team and see how I like it and I like it.
“It doesn’t matter if I win or lose, as long as I’m having fun. I like meeting new people and trying new things.”
Castillo is part of a deep Keaau roster, which includes 14 girls. There are also 14 boys. There are 10 weight division for boys and girls.
However, coach Miki Iaukea-Lum pointed out that her Cougars don’t carry a whole lot of experience.
For the girls, four juniors have experience: Aileen Umayas (98 pounds), Maelin Pokaka‘a (115), Ellienne Alonzo (129) and Cherish Harris (139).
Last year at the BIIF championships, Harris finished second in the 154-pound weight class.
“They listen well and they’re very positive,” Iaukea-Lum said of her Cougar girls. “I try to emphasize more discipline than you gotta win kind of thing. That applies to their lives. If they can get that discipline, that would make me happy if that’s the one thing they pick up from judo.”
Not that Iaukea-Lum is a partisan Cougars cheerleader, but she likes the spirit of her two smallest judoka: Umayas and Castillo, the newbie.
“Candace is not afraid to try and she’s doing fine,” Iaukea-Lum said. “She goes up against experienced players and holds her own. Aileen has a big heart. She’s always the smallest in her weight class, but has the biggest heart.”
The Keaau boys have a lot of rookies. However, the two with the most experience are serious BIIF title contenders: Haaheo Chan, second at 198 last year, and Zephaniah Pavao, the defending heavyweight.
The two seniors were BIIF champion wrestlers as well, Chan at 195 pounds and Pavao at 285. Chan was second at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament while Pavao took fifth in February.
“Haaheo is way more focused on his technique and developing his style,” Iaukea-Lum said. “As far as his competition, he goes in knowing what he wants to work on.
“Zephaniah is doing OK. He doesn’t stop. He’s constantly attacking and moving. In the bigger weight class, a lot of conditioning comes into play.”
Umayas, who’s in her second year of judo, qualified for states last season and lost two matches. But in dual competition, the smallest Cougar had a prosperous day.
“I pinned my Hilo opponent. My season has been pretty good,” she said. “It’s been a great experience. The best part for me is getting out there on the mat, and having that feeling of adrenaline, going against someone and doing my best.”
Umayas, who has also bowled and wrestled for the Cougars, will have tough competition in her 98-pound weight class at the BIIF individual championships on Saturday, April 26 at Waiakea.
That title belongs to two-time defending BIIF champion Shaylin Arakaki. The Hilo senior also closed her BIIF wrestling career with two league crowns and undefeated seasons.
Still, it doesn’t cost anything to dream big and shoot for the sky.
“My goal is I want to get a BIIF title and play at states again,” Umayas said.
The next weight class at 103 is a vacant title with both the champion and runner-up gone.
Still, that’s little concern to Castillo, who carries a 3.8 grade-point average. She’s relishing her new adventure. But how does a Cougar go from cheerleading to judo?
“I was doing cheerleading and wanted to change a little bit,” she said. “I wanted to do another sport. But I wanted to try something new, something no one would expect me to do. It was a ‘Why not?’ kind of decision.
“My favorite memory is when I won my first match. It was indescribable. It was, ‘Did that really just happen?’ I couldn’t believe it. I was happy that I did it. I’m going to be a senior next year and I don’t want to miss out on anything, saying, ‘I wish I had done that.’ I just wanted to have an open mind.”