Kaiser made like Dory from “Finding Nemo” and just kept swimming … just kept swimming. And before long Saturday afternoon, the Cougars swam right into their first OIA water polo championship.
The OIA’s top seed turned to its experience and superior swimming ability to defeat nine-time defending champion Kahuku, completing a dominant run through its league schedule (17-0). Kaiser’s girls became the first school to sweep OIA titles in swimming and diving and water polo in the same school year.
Kanoko Niimura, Kaiser’s strongest all-around player, capped a stellar run through the tournament with a four-goal performance, giving her 10 in three days. Sarah Lorenzo added a pair and Noelle Nakakura and Erin Patterson chipped in scores Saturday.
Kaiser seniors Megan Kaneshiro, Erin Patterson and Kanoko Niimura talk about winning their school’s first OIA water polo championship, and doing it for longtime coach Asa Tanaka, who might retire after states.@HawaiiPrepWorld pic.twitter.com/MGEoxNryfH
— Brian McInnis (@Brian_McInnis) April 21, 2019
It was a reasonably tight match in the first half (it was 3-0 at halftime), though the Cougars were getting the bulk of the chances. They separated in the third quarter with some decisive counterattacks and three goals in the period from Niimura.
Interestingly, the senior credited the spurt to … some fatigue.
“First half, our issue is, I think we’re a swimming team so we all kind of panic and we all kind of swim too much and drive too much,” Niimura said. “And then we all clutter and it never works out well. But then this time, the second half, we get tired, and when we get tired, we’re able to start playing smarter, not harder.”
The Cougars are the OIA’s seeded team in the Stanford Carr Development/HHSAA championships beginning April 29, then May 2-4 at Kamehameha. Kaiser will receive a bye and open play in the quarterfinals May 2.
But whatever happens now is just a bonus, as far as the Cougars are concerned. A tight-knit team — the Cougars spend most of their free time together in a roving band on campus — came back closer than ever after losing 9-6 to Kahuku in last year’s OIA title game. They practiced heavily last summer and took a trip to Japan together for good measure.
“We’ve been scrimmaging with Kamehameha and other teams, so we’re excited to play seriously with those teams,” Niimura said. “But our team, this is our main goal, so from now we’re going to have fun and just try our best to get up in states too.”
Kaiser’s longtime coach in swimming sports, Asa Tanaka, 62, received a reluctant toss in to the pool from his cheering players and staff. Tanaka, still dripping afterward, said this might be his last ride, if he can find a worthy successor. He’d already stepped aside in swimming after starting to coach that at age 23. (Tanaka had taken over water polo the last seven years.)
— Brian McInnis (@Brian_McInnis) April 21, 2019
It’s hard to argue with stepping away after his school became just the second besides Kahuku (Roosevelt in 2009) to win in 17 years of OIA championships in the sport.
“It will be great for the school,” Tanaka said of the title. “I don’t know how big of a presence has in the community. I know my neighborhood will be proud. You know, on my street. But hopefully it will put our name on the map, and people will hear that we have a water polo team, and that more people will come out. If there’s only one gain from this, (I hope) it would be that more people come out.”
Experience played a huge role this time. Kaiser had 10 seniors. Kahuku had zero.
“You know, Kahuku, it’s an institution in Laie,” Tanaka said. “From the time (Aukai) Ferguson, he was the first coach. He started an institution up there. They were tough every year, in and out, in and out. (This year), it’s just the rise and flow. I’m up, they’re low. Talent-wise, numbers-wise, they’re going to be high, I’m going to be low. It’s the ebb and flow. And sometimes it’s not what you got, it’s what everybody else got. Because we were the same team last year, and we couldn’t (win it).”
Second-year Kahuku coach Gina Ahue, a former Red Raiders player, was quick to congratulate and credit Kaiser for its title, saying “they deserved it” more than once in speaking of the Cougars’ swimming speed.
When asked about her team’s youth, she acknowledged some unprecedented difficulties for the program in keeping it stocked with seasoned players. A big reason for that? The Red Raiders no longer have access to the pool at BYU-Hawaii. She was unsure if it was because of the shutdown of college sports at BYUH.
“I don’t know the exact reason,” she said. “We don’t have that space available, so we’ve been practicing in a very small pool, that’s half shallow, half deep at Pupukea Boy Scouts (camp, a 30-minute drive away). And we just try to make do because we don’t have any resources. So I think that’s deterred players, because of the location; it’s really hard to get up to Pupukea. So that’s one reason. And it’s just building, getting these girls at very young ages and giving them the skills very young will help overall for the program.”
But she also resolved her team, which was seeded third in the tournament this year, would be back to playing for titles.
Siitia Cravens had a pair of goals and Jade Paranhos-Lopes the other for the Red Raiders.
Here’s a few more photos: