By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KEAAU — Konawaena junior Aaliyah Ching’s gold medal was a bittersweet deal at the Big Island Interscholastic Federation wrestling championships on Saturday.
She won the 101-pound title without a fight. That’s because she didn’t have an opponent. Among the 28 bouts for boys and girls, only her weight class had one competitor.
In any case, Ching, a first-year wrestler, qualified for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships, which will be held Feb. 28-March 1 on Oahu.
She got word on Friday that she would have no competition. But Ching made the trip over to BIIFs to soak in the atmosphere of the day-long competition.
“It’s a great experience to be at the championships,” she said. “I learned that it takes a lot of determination and mental strength to be here. It’s bittersweet. It’s good that I won, but I would have liked to wrestle.”
Last year as a sophomore, she went out for judo for the first time, and placed third at 98 pounds at the BIIF championships. She qualified for states and went 2-2, but didn’t reach the final field of six.
Kona judo coach Rodney Branco suggested she take up wrestling to improve for her favorite sport. She started judo as a 10-year-old at Kona Hongwanji, under her dad and club president David Araki.
“Wrestling is a great way to help train me for judo and it’ll help my ground technique,” said Ching (7-8), who had no competition at 101 during the season and wrestled at either 97 or 105 pounds.
In fact for the 14 girls weight classes, none was filled to capacity with eight wrestlers. There were just 51 wrestlers and small numbers for each division. There were only two wrestlers at 105 and 109, and just three at 121, 125 and 135.
For the boys, there were 80 wrestlers and full weight classes at 120, 132, 145, 152 and 160. Only the 106 division had two wresters, and there were just three at 195 and 220.
Hawaii Prep fielded 12 of the 14 boys weight classes and 10 of the 14 girls weight divisions, impressive depth considering the spring season is stacked with other sports, like basketball, canoe paddling, soccer, and swimming and diving.
Ka Makani’s boys took fourth with 105 points, behind Waiakea, which won its fourth straight title with 163 points, Pahoa, 153; and Kamehameha, 110.
Kealakehe’s girls beat defending champion Hilo for the team crown, 122-100 points. Kamehameha, which took titles from 2010 to ‘12, was third with 84 points and HPA was fourth with 76.
“That’s the closest we’ve ever come to filling all the weight classes,” said third-year HPA co-coach Paakaula Kalawaianui, who coaches with Hamilton Ford. “I don’t think we’ll ever have that size again. We’ve never won a BIIF championship in school history.
“Our previous coach Gary Jarvill, who’s a teacher at the school, was big on building wrestling. He was good at making people aware of it. We’ve got a good bunch of kids.”
One of their best ones and a nice building block is sophomore Loke Ching, who won the 135-pound BIIF title last year as a freshman and finished sixth at the state tournament, which started in 1998 for the girls; the boys began in 1966.
“She comes from a wrestling family. Her dad was a wrestler at Lahainaluna High (on Maui).That’s all they do,” Kalawaianui said. “She’s really strong, quick and has all the tools for a wrestler. She’s got the build, strength and size, everything and she’s very coachable.”
Like HPA, the Pahoa Daggers have never captured a boys or girls BIIF championship. They filled 11 of the 14 boys weight classes and only 4 of 14 for the girls. But they’re hoping for something much better than making history.
The Daggers want their own wrestling room, like the host Cougars, who have a space between the gym’s locker rooms. The Daggers thought it would happen with the school’s new gym. Now, they’re crossing their fingers it’s in the blueprint for Phase 2 of the capital improvements.
“That’s what makes them work harder. They want their own wrestling room,” Pahoa coach Elvis Lum said. “That’s one thing I really like that they’re striving really hard to get something out of it. It’s not only about going to states, but it’s about doing something for all the past wrestlers at Pahoa.
“It’s something they all dreamt about, having a wrestling room. Every day we tell them, ‘You’re doing good. But let’s do better.’ It’s a burning fire for them.”
Lum has a solid trio in juniors Austin Christian (132 pounds), Reed Hayashikawa (145), and Hoku Kahookaulana (160), the latter two ran cross country and all joined wrestling as freshmen.
“They all coach the other kids,” Lum said. “That makes them better wrestlers because when they teach they’re correcting themselves and that’s how you get better. And they’re getting the beginners at a higher level, too.”
Maybe one day, the Daggers can have their cake and eat it, too, winning a historic BIIF championship and getting their dream wrestling room.