Hilo senior Mahala Kaapuni is smiling because volleyball practice will start soon, a time for fun with all her teammates.
The 5-foot-9 senior will be the centerpiece for the Vikings, the unlikely defending BIIF Division I champion who found a way to upset Kamehameha for the title last year.
Two main cogs from that team are gone in Taina Leao (Delaware State) and Laurie McGrath (San Francisco). Setter Erica Canon and libero Siena Mizuno also graduated.
“It sounds like a lot of pressure, but I’ll try my hardest, and hopefully my teammates will do their best and we’ll try to figure something out toward the end,” Kaapuni said. “In the offseason, I worked on my passing. That’s the No. 1 thing with our team: defense, defense, defense. We get that down first, and then we get to the offense.”
Hilo coach Drew has watched Kaapuni blossom from a freshman middle blocker, who waited in line for her turn to hit, to an offensive threat who took swings from different spots last season.
“She’s taking control,” he said. “She was up and up with Taina and Laurie. It’s her senior year, and it’s her time. We have four seniors (Kaapuni, Jamie Chun, Aaliyah Asuncion, Leialii Makekau Whitaker) and we need them to take charge and be leaders, especially in their last season.”
Kaapuni sharpened her skills over the summer with her club team, the Piopio Bears, and verbally committed to Alaska Anchorage, so she doesn’t have to worry about finding a college home.
She points to her father Michael Kaapuni as a big influence.
“He was my first coach and played for a number of years,” she said. “He pushes me to try my best and try my hardest.”
Kaapuni enjoyed her trip to Alaska Anchorage and liked the team, the coaches and the campus. She’ll also find the competition in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference quite challenging as well as the weather.
Western Washington, the national runner-up is in the conference. The Seawolves were tabbed as the No. 3 pick in the preseason poll. But Kaapuni, who plans to major in kinesiology, doesn’t have to think about that for another year.
She and the Vikings just need to figure out how all their pieces fit.
The roster is filled with experience. There are setters Makani Lum Ho-Chesebro and Sarai Ua, middle blocker Tia Leao, outside hitters Makekau Whitaker and Sarah Katayama, and defenders Chun and Asuncion.
Fernandez also likes the promise of freshman setter Ili Young, who’s from Ke Kula O Nawahiokalaniopuu Iki, a Hawaiian immersion school in Keaau. There’s more depth with Makekau Whitaker, whose sister Kamalu is a senior setter at CSUN, the Big West school and a UH-Manoa rival.
The Vikings opened with a road sweep against Ka’u last week and play their first home match Tuesday against Konawaena, the BIIF Division II runner-up. Then they gear up for the Kamehameha tournament, which runs Thursday through Saturday.
“It’s going to be interesting with 24 teams.,” Fernandez said. “We’ve got players who can play multiple positions. We told the girls who wants it will play.
“Jamie Chun did very well at the McKinley tournament. She stepped up on defense and passed well. She wanted it and wants to be the libero.”
What Kaapuni wants is for everybody to have a good time. Sure, she’d like the Vikings to repeat as the BIIF champs and make a deeper run at states. But there’s another reason why she’s got such a bright smile when it’s volleyball time.
“Winning BIIFs is always the goal,” she said. “But my biggest goal with my teammates is to have fun. I love it when my teammates have fun at practices and games.”