Instead of experience and depth, the Kamehameha girls judo team has youth and a thin roster, but a pair of former champions as motivating coaches.
Last year, the Warriors won their sixth straight Big Island Interscholastic Federation title, and had seven judoka in the 10 weight classes at the championship finals.
All seven graduated, including Welina Tong, who took BIIF gold at 154 pounds. She’s wrestling at Midland University, an NAIA school in Nebraska.
Instead of 12 judoka like last season, the Warriors have eight — all freshmen or sophomores with a limited background in a discipline that relies on technique as much as anything.
First-year coach Kalena Shiroma is a 2010 Kamehameha graduate and three-time BIIF champion. She took silver her junior year at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state championships.
She’s assisted by Megan Aina, a 2012 Kamehameha graduate and the only judoka and wrestler to win eight BIIF crowns and a state gold in each sport.
“A match could end in five seconds,” she said. “I was taught to use the other person’s force to throw them. You need good timing. You could get swept and you have to be aware of timing. That’s the key.”
At least the team has a nice anchor with freshman Kayla Araki, who captured BIIF gold in wrestling at 140 pounds. She has two years of club judo and, in Aina’s eyes, a world of potential.
“I think she has a really good chance to go 8 for 8,” Aina said. “She won BIIFs for wrestling and was disappointed that she didn’t place at states. That will push her next year for wrestling and this year for judo.
“If she focuses on certain things, I think she’ll be extremely good all four years of high school. She has the drive. She has to be more sure of herself. She’s really young and wants to learn more.”
Tong is gone so 154 is open or Araki could drop down to 139. If she wants judo gold, it’s probably a good idea to avoid Hilo senior Lahi Kanakanui, another decorated judoka and wrestler.
Kanakanui has a chance to go 7 of 8 in BIIF judo-wrestling gold. She’s won the last three judo titles at 139. She’s a three-time wrestling champ (third as a freshman), winning at 155 at BIIFs in February.
Several of Kanakanui’s teammates are defending judo champions: Shaylyn Arakaki (98 pounds), Katie Funai (109) and Marissa Guerra (122). The Vikings are the favorites for the BIIF team title.
The team championships will be held April 19 at Konawaena. The individual championships will be held April 26 at Waiakea.
Aina also likes the potential of freshman Kaua Albino-Kaupu, another wrestler. She was third at BIIFs at 125 pounds. She fits somewhere in the weight classes of 115, 122 or 129.
“She tried it the first day and liked it,” Aina said. “It’ll help with her wrestling. Sometimes, people drop out the first day after throwing. Usually new people don’t like that. But she stuck around. She’s really strong and aggressive.”
Wrestling has 14 weight classes while judo has only 10. Judoka from the same school can enter the same weight division, which makes cutting weight not such a chore.
With fewer weight classes, it’s a tougher tossup to what road a judoka picks to chase BIIF gold. There’s no such thing as a walk in the park for first place, not with competition at every crowded weight division.
In Albino-Kaupu’s case, there’s competition everywhere. Konawaena junior Ruby Suarez is the defending champ at 115. Guerra figures to be the No. 1 seed at 122, Waiakea senior and last year’s silver medalist Skye Matsuura at 129, Araki at 139 and Kanakanui at 154.
Shiroma touts the ceiling of sophomore Leicha White, who will likely compete at 122, Guerra’s neighborhood. She also likes the potential of freshmen Brendan Figueroa, Talan Nakamura and Hansel Kaaumoana on the boys team, which has a roster of 11, all freshmen and sophomores.
“Leicha has potential if she keeps practicing,” Shiroma said. “She is focused on learning new stuff and she’s pretty strong. I’m not sure if she thinks she’s good or not. But I’ve practiced against her and she’ll be able to win if she wants to.”
Unlike wrestling, takedowns are not allowed in judo, where a hard flip is an ippon — one point and a winning score. There are so many throws and counters to each, a reason offense and defense occurs at the same time.
And with so much youth, Shiroma likes the fact her judoka are sponges with no inherited bad habits.
“You have to play both, offense and defense, because either you’re flipping someone or you’re being flipped or you’re countering someone flipping you,” said Shiroma, who like Aina, is a student at University of Hawaii at Hilo. “The best thing is the kids are young and it’s a fresh start. This year we want to motivate them, keep them motivated and interested. We want them to work on their feet and have fun.”
Asked about extending that BIIF winning streak to seven years, Shiroma had a glass half-full outlook.
“I don’t know about that. It really depends if they continue to come to practice and work hard,” she said. “When I was in high school, I played with a lot of girls who already were in club judo for a while. None of them have a lot of experience. But they’ve got a lot of potential.”