Chanelle Molina doesn’t think she grew an inch from last year, but it’s pretty obvious and plain to see for opponents and anyone standing in a gym that the Konawaena sophomore has made a gigantic leap on the volleyball court.
“I don’t think I grew any. I don’t think so,” she said after Kona’s five-set Big Island Interscholastic Federation loss to Kamehameha on Saturday. “But I worked on my legs, doing hop drills to improve my jumping. It’s 2 inches better.”
That’s only one part of the 5-foot-6 outside hitter’s game. She’s well-rounded, especially her hitting. And even better, she’s the engine that drives her team, much like Kamehameha outside hitter Kaiu Ahuna.
Ahuna, a 5-8 junior, and Molina are alike in so many ways, except for the obvious traits of height and experience. Ahuna has been to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament the last two years, facing the best of the best in Division I; Molina went once as a freshman at the Division II level.
But the similarities are strong. In a baseball analogy, both were throwers last season, swinging hard on every attempt, basically, trying to ram fastballs off double-blocks when a changeup roll shot over a wall might have been a better option.
“I know where to place the ball now,” Molina said. “Before I just knew how to hit. I’m going more positional this year.”
Molina is primarily a fastball pitcher, going for the fences most of the time, and offering her roll shot, top-spin sinker and line shot on a limited basis. But her progression as a hitter has made her far more difficult to defend, and what she lacks in height she compensates with athleticism — her jumping ability, timing and quick arm swing.
Throughout Kamehameha’s five-set win over Kona, Molina didn’t get the opportunity to hit against a one-on-one block. If she did, it was a blocking mistake because the Warriors hedged on Molina, making her life tough and giving more room to her teammates. Still, Molina piled up 19 kills.
The only hitting tool neither showed at Koaia gym was a cut shot, cranking the outside of the ball, giving it arm-side run or a screwball effect that dives to the right side of the plate, or away from the cross-court digger or inside a block. But that’s small potatoes, especially for Ahuna.
What really makes her unique in the BIIF is her uncanny body control. When she doesn’t get a good run on a ball, the lanky Ahuna can still slap on mustard and hit an off-balanced shot hard with accuracy, sort of like a basketball player shooting a free throw while falling backward. Most players hit that shot into the net or a free ball.
When Molina rotates to the back row, her role changes but not her responsibilities. She’s the middle back or primary ball-handler, taking a major role in serve-receive and transition defense when the ball is going back and forth.
She and her freshman sister Celena Molina, a 5-6 setter/hitter, switch off as the designated top passer. When one is in the front, the other is in the back, providing the Wildcats a balance of power hitting and precision passing in every rotation.
Since she was 12 years old, the older Molina has played for first-year Kona coach Ainsley Keawekane’s club team, Hoopa. She credits him for sharpening her game and thinking, mainly the part about moving the ball around.
Asked what he appreciates about Molina, the Kona coach pointed out the obvious — her athleticism — then immediately followed with a more defining answer.
“I like her athleticism,” Keawekane said. “And I like her willingness to win. If she loses one game, she expects to win the next. She’s got a competitive fire. All coaches like that kind of player, someone who will learn what it takes to win and do anything to win. She doesn’t like losing.”
Apparently the two sisters share that same competitive gene.
“Celena wants to win and she has a passion for winning,” Molina said. “We don’t like to lose and we’ll do anything to win again.”
Molina closed her freshman season with a flourish. She led Kona with 14 kills in the loss to Ka‘u for the BIIF title. Then she landed on the All-BIIF Division II second team.
The Wildcats also finished seventh at states, beating Kaimuki for the consolation title. She had fine performances on Oahu. She had 14 kills in a first-round, five-set loss to La Pietra, and 11 kills against Kaimuki.
“This year, I’ve picked that up even more,” Molina said. “I don’t worry about the score. I just keep playing hard.”