It’s better to run into Kealakehe’s Roxie Umu after a wrestling match than beforehand.
Afterward, Umu is smiling, forthright and engaging.
Her prematch routine doesn’t sound nearly as conducive to a conversation.
“I like to listen to rap, but I pray a lot,” she said last Saturday at Hilo High. “I try to get in the zone. I try not to talk to anyone, because I know wrestling is my sanctuary.”
Lately, that safe haven on the mat hasn’t existed for any of her opponents – they’ve had the misfortune of running into Umu during a match.
The junior’s last loss came in the HHSAA championship semifinals, where she rebounded to take bronze at 225 pounds after finishing fourth as a freshman in 2016. Since then, Umu has dropped down to a more accommodating weight class, 184, and she’s discarding foes left and right, be it on Maui, the Moanalua Duals, the Punahou invitational or at BIIF meets.
The move down in divisions, Waveriders coach Ivan Louis said, was made with an eye on Umu continuing her career in college, where 190 is the top class, but the drop is becoming a win-win situation.
“I feel more comfortable and confident (at 184) because I was able to overcome breaking into 225,” Umu said. “There were bigger girls there and that’s what trained me for 184. I know I have to keep training no matter what because there is always going to be somebody out to get you.”
Last Saturday, that somebody was Konawaena’s Kapoina Bailey, who was wrestling up in class after taking silver at 168 at states last season – losing to Keaau’s Ivory Ayers. Umu vs. Bailey can be considered a main event at any BIIF meet since both represent the greatest threats from the Big Island to follow in the footsteps of Ayers and take state gold in mid-February in Honolulu.
“She’s a really good wrestler, a great competitor, somebody I always look forward to wrestling,” Umu said. “Today, I just kind of had the mentality to leave it on the mat.”
That’s Umu modest way of saying she went for the pin and got it.
“Roxie’s made some drastic improvements,” Louis said. “Roxie shot on her and took her down. Maybe in the beginning of the season, she wouldn’t have done that.”
Said Umu: “I wouldn’t have (earlier in the season). I was super nervous. I have a great coaching staff. I feel like all of them trained me to make me go for it.”
Standing in front of a throng of Kealakehe wrestlers at the Vikings’ gym, the meet was a homecoming for Louis, a Hilo graduate.
But it’s clear where his new home is. He’s not only transformed the Waveriders into the BIIF’s most successful wrestling program – the boys have won two of three titles and the girls two in a row – but his squads represent, arguably, the best chance Kealakehe will have of winning a league title this school year, especially considering the boys soccer team, a six-time champ, is undergoing a rare rebuilding season.
Louis and Umu don’t take the responsibility lightly.
“I feel like wrestling is really a great sport at Kealakehe,” Umu said, “especially with Coach Ivan. He’s really taught us to mentally get through anything. The coaches yell at us that nobody can hold us down.
“I love my team. We cry, we sweat, we bleed together, and we all pick each other up at the end of the day.”
While the girls team should be able to fill 13 of 14 weight classes at BIIFs — that’s a luxury most if not any of the competition will have — Kealakehe’s boys might be able to fill all 14 if everything shakes out.
Among the headliners are junior Kobby Faeldonea, a two-time BIIF champion at 106 who has moved up 113, Malosi Abraham, a 182 champ on the move to 195, Trey Conrado, the 120 runner-up last season, Keli’i Pelekane (third at 132 last season and now at 145) and a host of wrestlers in the top divisions. Louis said there are a scarcity of BIIF heavyweights, and Kealakehe has two of them, Setu Vole, up from 220, and Michael Gopaul. Anthony Gopaul is a contender at 220 after being the BIIF heavweight runner-up last season.
“I’m going to be really honest with you,” Louis said. “Right now, it’s going to be an uphill battle (to repeat). Waiakea has been really tough. They have the lower half. We have to win those (lower divisions) to give us a chance to win the back end.”
On the girls side, he sees a similar challenge from Hilo and Kamehameha, among others.
Isabelle Tayo returns after winning gold at 138 last season, Louis calls Tiane Gomes an “up and comer” and his daughter, Pualani Lewis, is a freshman who starting to catch on in the 97 class.
And of course, he has a rock, Roxie Umu, at 184.
“Wrestling is more than just a sport, it’s a lifestyle,” she said. “For the past two years, I’ve definitely grown a love for my team and my coaching staff. Wrestling is really life-changing. It makes you want to step up the bar in life. You have to take control.”
Working with assistant Iwa Worthington, Hilo girls wrestlers are catching coaches’ eyes, making up for a lack of quantity (eight wrestlers), with quality.
Among those to watch are Lilia Campbell and Taylia Lee in the lower divisions and Leona Toledo in the highest.
“Whatever they work on in practice, they’re using their techniques and putting it to work on the mats,” said Worthington, a 2017 Assets School graduate who won the ILH championship for Pac-Five last season.
Worthington is studying at UH-Hilo and is already looking to give back.
“I did something good and I wanted to help others do something good,” she said, adding wrestlers on Oahu are more “hyped” up than those on the Big Island.
“I’m pushing the girls to be more aggressive,” she said.
The last regular season meet is Saturday at Hawaii Prep, with BIIFs in tap for Feb. 3 at Kealakehe.