BIIF judo: Waiakea seniors have perfect mindset

  • Waiakea seniors LiAnn Yamamoto, left, and Katie Lee are three-time BIIF champions, at 109 and 122 pounds, respectively.

Waiakea seniors LiAnn Yamamoto and Katie Lee have a chance to stand in rare company on the BIIF judo mat.

They are three-time defending BIIF champions, and the list of 4 for 4 gold medalists is not very long.

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It’s tough enough to win back-to-back titles or even three straight in a sport where upsets, with quick counter-strikes, can happen in an eye-blink at the BIIF championships.

But four in a row can be done. It just doesn’t happen all that often.

Keaau’s Ivory Ayers did it last year, and before that, it was the Aina sisters from Kamehameha, Megan (2012) and Jenna (2010).

Yamamoto and Lee have solid shots to go 4 for 4 and form an exclusive club as teammates accomplishing perfection in the same year.

Kealakehe senior Roxie Umu is also 3 for 3, but she is not competing in judo this season.

Waiakea has two strong 4 for 4 candidates in junior Raelyn Ai-Yoneda (2 for 2) and sophomore Samantha Yamamoto, who won the 98-pound BIIF title last year.

For the boys, there are no BIIF junior judoka who are 2 for 2.

Kellen Goya (Waiakea, 2016) was the last to pull off the gold perfection feat, and before him was Justin Raymond (Konawaena, 2013).

In BIIF wrestling, perfection is just as tough.

Justin Hirae (Kamehameha, 2011), in four different weight classes, was the last to go 4 for 4 for the boys.

For the girls, Kayla Araki (Kamehameha, 2017), Tanalei Louis (Konawaena, 2013), Megan Aina, and Alexandra Aoki (Konawaena, 2010) were the most recent.

But back to judo, which is different from wrestling because it is a sudden-death sport with an ippon, a knockout score via hard throw.

Yamamoto and Lee have different takes on their pursuits of 4 for 4 BIIF gold.

“It would be a big accomplishment. Judo is the only thing I’m good at,” Yamamoto joked. “I do swimming, but it’s a conditioning sport.

“The key is to try hard at practice and practice on your own. I’ve run on my own and lifted weights. My sister (Samantha) pushes me, and I push her.”

LiAnn Yamamoto is competing at 109 pounds while Lee is playing at 122 pounds. They hold the experience edge against their league opponents.

“I’m doing judo as a team. It’s not that big of a deal to me,” Lee said. “If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose.”

Lee has a low-key approach, but that doesn’t mean she’s not serious about judo, which she started before seventh grade at Shudokan Judo Club.

The Yamamoto sisters train at Hilo Hongwanji, where they also started as youngsters.

LiAnn Yamamoto has finished third at the HHSAA tournament the last two years and sixth as a freshman.

Last year, she lost to Roosevelt senior Yuting He, the eventual state champion. She’s gone, so a carrot is hanging in front of Yamamoto.

Lee has never been among the top six state finishers. Motivation is in front of her, too.

“LiAnn is really focused in her senior year. Being that it’s her senior year, she wants to make it to the finals,” Waiakea coach Jason Tanaka said. “She’s hard-working and super humble. She’ll put in the work.

“It’s the same thing with Katie. She’s really hard-working, and it’s her senior year and a light bulb clicked. She has the potential to do well at states.”

Yamamoto holds a 3.6 GPA and plans to major in Japanese and business at UH-Hilo.

Lee has a 4.23 GPA and wants to go to an East Coast college and major in biology.

But before their college planning takes shape, they have BIIF perfection to chase.

Favorites again

Last year, Waiakea captured the boys and girls BIIF team championships.

For the boys, the Warriors won five titles in a row from 2011 to ’15. Hilo snapped the string in 2016.

For the girls, they’ve pocketed three of the last four crowns. Keaau took it in 2015. Before that, Kamehameha had a six-year roll.

“We’ve got a lot of depth and talent on both sides,” Tanaka said. “The girls side has been putting in the work, more so than last year. Plus, we’ve got nine seniors, and they’re all fairly good.”

One of the seniors to watch is Shamma Nakama, who pulled off the biggest upset at BIIFs last year in the 154 class.

Throughout, her judoka club and BIIF career, Nakama always finished second to Kamehameha’s Kayla Araki. But Nakama beat her for the league title by ippon.

For the boys, senior Callen Rillon is the most accomplished. He won the 132 title for his second BIIF crown last season.

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For the girls, the most promising is Samantha Yamamoto, who took second at states last year.

Maybe in a couple of years, she and her sister LiAnn Yamamoto can join Jenna and Megan Aina in that rare 4 for 4 BIIF gold sibling club, too.