Wright On: Junior tennis players on upswing

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald
    From left, Keilyn Kunimoto, Anna Oda and Luke Hamano

A long time ago in a land that seems far away, there was no internet, people didn’t carry around phones, smart ones or dumb ones. Television news was brief back then, 30 minutes around the dinner hour. There was no such thing as cable news, or even cable television.

Most people got their news in the pages of the morning or afternoon newspaper and one of the things you always heard was that they liked to turn to the sports section to read some good news, or at least news about people achieving or aspiring to improve.

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Today, absent a time machine, we are fulfilling that obligation of supplying good news about local people.

Not just good news, but for the Hilo tennis community, it is — take your pick — the golden age, or maybe the salad days for the sport on the east side of the Big Island.

“It’s unheard of,” said Randy Kunimoto, a local tennis coach who says there are more Hilo youth players ranked in the Top 5 of state-level competition than ever before. “We’ve never had this many kids ranked so high in the state. We have always had a couple players who can compete with the best (in the state), but we’ve never had a group as large as this.”

At the end of the month, a number of local players will be headed to various zone competitions on the mainland, and for all of them, the experience will be tantamount to an audition for a college scholarship. The zonal tournaments are the second-highest level in the nation, including six players from each age group in each state. At the highest level, only two qualify from each state, but because of the larger numbers, these Level II competitions are more fun for most young players.

They travel in small groups with friends, supporting and encouraging each other at every step along the way. You aren’t alone, competing against the best, you are in a group setting competing against the best.

“It’s just a great opportunity,” said Anna Oda, a junior at Waiakea High School when school reopens in another month, “the competition is higher, it’s up there, but you prepare for it, you really, really work on what you need to work on and then you go compete.

“We know there will be college scouts there, taking notes and things,” she said, “but it is also about respect; you are there to represent yourself, yes, of course, but you are also there to represent your coach, your teammates and, really, the whole tennis community in Hilo.”

Players accrue points in state competitions that are added together to form a composite score that can qualify players for these tournaments. It happens every year, but the numbers are swelling from the Hilo side.

“I think it’s bigger than it ever has been (in Hilo),” Kunimoto said. “I would say in Hilo right now, there are about 300 junior players and we used to be around 200. Of those, my guess would be that there are about 30-40 very competitive juniors, and we’ve never had that many before.”

Here is the list of Hawaii Island juniors players qualified for National Tournaments this Summer:

12’s West Zone Team Championships (Tucson, Ariz.) — Kaiden Kunimoto, Hilo; Kiora Kunimoto, Hilo.

14’s West Zone Team Championships (Stockton, Calif.) — Denby Nagata, Hilo; Trinity Yamagata, Kealakekua.

14’s Intersectional Team Championships (Auburn, Ala.) — Maya Atwal, Hilo; Jade Brilhante, Hilo.

16’s West Zone Team Championships (Salt Lake City, Ut.) —Maile Brilhante, Hilo; Luke Hamano, Hilo; Keilyn Kunimoto, Hilo; Anna Oda, Hilo.

Boys 18’s National Team Championships (Urbana, Ill.) — Ryo Minakata, Kamuela; Hayden Virtue, Kapaau.

That’s a dozen young players from the Big Island headed to competition that will sharpen their games immeasurably, and there are others highly ranked in the state, waiting their turns, such as Kiki Kunimoto, #1 (12’s girls), Kaiden Kunimoto #2 (12’s boys), and Denby Nagata #4 (14’s girls) in the current ranking for the Hawaii Pacific section, all qualified.

They are all developing, getting better the more they play, but for each of them, an awareness of burgeoning capability seems to come on at some point and begins to drive their motivation.

“For me,” said Keilyn Kunimoto, a 16 year-old Waiakea High School student, “tennis was always fun, I enjoyed it when I started when I was about 8, but when I started competing with players from other parts of the state? That’s when it kind of got going for me.

“I loved the competition,” Kunimoto said, “and once you start winning, and seeing what others your age are doing, it is absolutely a motivation — you want to get better and better.”

Kunimoto has played tennis half of her young life and, like Oda and Luke Hamano, a 16 year-old player from Hilo High, zonal competition later this month will be about making an impression that could lead to a college scholarship.

“I’m really thinking this could get me to a college and help out financially,” Kunimoto said. “You start getting better and you just want to see how far you can go. I don’t have a specific (school) I’d like to go to on the mainland, but I hope I’ll maybe get a choice of a couple.”

For tennis talent on the rise, zone competitions are the next step every bit as much as high school all-star games in football, baseball, volleyball and basketball are designed to make the job a little easier for college recruiters. These kids seem ready.

Hamano thrives on motivation. His mother sent him for tennis lessons from Randy Kunimoto when Hamano was 10 years-old and after a few lessons, he caught the coach’s attention.

“I remember it was a simple thing he mentioned once,” Hamano said. “He said, ‘You can be good at this if you work at it,’ and that kind of got me going.”

As he began to refine his techniques, Hamano entered various competitions around the state. There was one player from another island who always seemed to find a way to win. Hamano thought they were equally talented, but he struggled every time.

“Then, one time I just beat him,” Hamano said. “I beat him in three sets and I just continued to do well against him. It just showed me you need to keep working at it and one day it can happen.”

Tennis has taken Hamano around the country, to tournaments on the east coast, one in Florida, and soon he’ll be headed to Salt Lake City where a lot of eyes will be on him, wondering how he might fit into their college program.

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At some point, if they haven’t already, these college recruiters will look at Hilo players like Hamano, Oda, Kunimoto, or any of the nine others from here headed to zone competitions and see emerging talent with a persistent and aggressive mental approach.

And then they’ll have another revelation when they go talent hunting — there’s a lot more like these back home in Hilo.