Kaiser athletics has had its share of controversy in the past few years.
But the bad mojo is fading away.
On Wednesday night at the McKinley gym, the school had a feel-good moment when the Cougars girls volleyball team locked up the OIA Division II championship with a 26-28, 25-21, 25-18, 25-22 victory over Leilehua.
“This is fantastic for these girls and fantastic for Kaiser,” Cougars coach Kainoa Downing said. “Kaiser has struggled in sports the last couple of years. Hopefully this can help all the kids.”
The Cougars were unable to finish the football season in 2017 due to a midseason assault by a parent on the football coach, who eventually resigned. A few years before that, there was an investigation of wrongdoing on the part of the girls basketball coach that, although no results of it were reported by the DOE, led to his release.
There is a building sense of optimism in Hawaii Kai under new athletic director Nelson Chee. The football team under new coach Tim Seaman has regrouped and is preparing for an OIA Division II playoff game on Saturday after going 4-3-1 during the season.
The volleyball team persevered through some tense moments in the fourth set Wednesday night. Leilehua led by five, 17-12, and things were pointing to a fifth set.
But as Downing said afterward, his girls are just learning how to fight through the mental parts of the game and how to finish things off.
Back they came. Angelica Young had two blocks and a kill to put the Cougars (7-6) in a better position. Later, Pulelehua Keb had two kills, including one that gave Kaiser its first lead of the set at 23-22. A Mules error led to Tehina Misi‘s kill on a set from Jaylynn Nihipali for the match-clinching point.
“I knew my teammate (Misi) would put it down,” Nihipali said. “We’re just super happy.”
That type of confidence in your teammates is exactly what Downing is trying to impress on the Cougars — how to be gritty and resilient near the ends of sets to finish things off.
“I tell them you don’t have to be perfect to win, you just want to play high percentage volleyball and see where it takes us,” Downing said.
It’s the Cougars’ second overall D-II girls volleyball championship, with the first coming in 2009 under coach Ernest Noborikawa.
Downing coached Kamehameha to the Division I boys volleyball state championship in 2011. He took over the Kaiser girls team in 2017.
Downing was really proud of the way his team handled the pressure of the big moment, especially after losing the first set.
“They’re not used to all the different effects that were happening tonight — all the people screaming and being on TV for the first time. You usually have to learn how to deal with that and they did a pretty job of it.”
Another big hurdle stands in front of the Cougars — the D-II states next week.
The Mules (6-6) are also going to the tournament and hoping to bounce back.
“I’m more disappointed in myself and how I played the fourth set,” Leilehua setter Taylor Davis said. “My team did really good and we’re still going to states and I’m happy about that.”