KOHALA COAST — The Mighty Kiwi finally got the oh-so-sweet ending he was searching for at the HHSAA tennis championships.
With a home crowd behind him, Hawaii Preparatory Academy senior Ryo Minakata roared to a 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Kihei Charter School’s Hobbes Wilstead at the Fairmont Orchid Tennis Center on Saturday.
Minakata is the first state champion from Hawaii Prep and the first out of the BIIF since 2008. The last Big Islander to wrangle a state crown was St. Joseph’s Fernando Aguirregomezcorta
“I can’t believe it,” Minakata said. “It was really hot out there. I was losing my mental and physical edge for a little bit in the first set, but was able to get back on track. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Minakata is originally from Japan, but spent time in New Zealand before coming to the Big Island to attend Hawaii Prep, giving him a noticeable Kiwi accent. His brother, JJ Minakata — a two-time BIIF champ and state contender in his own right during his time with Ka Makani — had already taken the catchy “Mighty Minakata” nickname, so the younger brother got the Mighty Kiwi, something he has embraced.
“My Mighty Kiwi team and the crowd helped me get through,” said Minakata, specifically thanking his family, girlfriend Marta Arcones and personal coach Mathew Johnson.
Minakata had come close to state gold the past two years, most notably his sophomore season when he was defeated in the state final in three sets. But back on the championship stage and the healthiest he’s been during his prep career, Minakata was determined not to miss this time around.
“In past years, I’ve been injured and my body was weak. I was practicing too hard — almost everyday four hours of training,” said Minakata. “This year, so much changed. I got my whole body ready for this. I changed up a lot and it paid off.”
Both players battled in a back and forth first set, which would eventually need a tiebreak.
Wilstead is an animated competitor who often drew laughs from the crowd with his one-liners. Midway through the pressure-packed tiebreak, he paused before his serve, turned to the crowd and said, “Man, this is fun.”
Minakata took the early edge, but Wilstead was able to fight back to 6-4 with the aid of a double-fault by the Hawaii Prep senior. However, Minakata recovered to take the first set with a powerful shot after a long rally.
Minakata said some right arm tightness limited his power, but his precision was key.
“I couldn’t hit my forehand as hard as I was used to and that’s not my style. I usually hit really hard,” Minakata said. “I just had to take advantage of my opportunities when they were there.”
The first set was the only real threat Minakata had faced all tournament. He dropped just four games heading into the final and that dominance surfaced again in the second set.
After an early break, Minakata had a chance to go up 4-0, but the persistent Wilstead kept battling back.
Facing championship point, the Kihei junior joked it was comeback time, and was able to extend the match. But Minakata would not be denied, tossing his racket in the air when he was finally able to put Wilstead away when his shot went long.
Wilstead competes out of Kihei Charter School, which was in its inaugural season competing in the sport. Previously, players from the school would compete with Maui High.
The junior was a big piece of the five-man Tiger Shark squad that won the MIL team title, despite having to forfeit one of the matches simply because they didn’t have enough players to field a second doubles team.
The duo had a bit of history, facing off two years ago in the first round, a match Minakata won when Wilstead retired in the second set.
“He’s a funny guy,” Minakata said. “He’s grown a lot and is much better than he was when I faced him last time. He’s just a junior, so he’ll be back here I’m sure.”
On the doubles side, the Iolani duo of Robert Chang and Scott Yamamoto beat Punahou’s Kailuhia Lam and Cade Fujitani 7-6 (9), 6-4.
It was the third year in a row that an Iolani doubles team claimed the state crown and the second consecutively for Yamamoto, a sophomore. Last year, he took home the title with his brother, Sean Yamamoto, edging his current teammate, Chang, in the state final.
“It feels great,” Yamamoto said. “We had to play them in the ILH finals and it was a really close match that went three sets. We knew going in this was going to be tough.”
The Iolani pair fell behind in the first set 5-2 before staging an epic comeback that forced a long tiebreak, eventually pulling it out.
“We were able to get the momentum back on our side when we forced the tiebreak,” Chang said. “It could have gone either way. Both of us were playing really well. There were set points on both sides but we were able to pull it out.”
The match had extra weight added to it when Punahou’s Leyton Ramos won his third place match, pulling the Buffanblu within striking distance for a share of the team title if they were able to win the doubles championship.
But Yamamoto and Chang were more than happy to play spoiler, helping the Red Raiders secure a fourth consecutive team championship.
“That put the pressure on us,” Yamamoto said. “We felt like we had to win for our teammates and it was awesome to be able to do it. Hopefully we can pull off something like this next year.”