It was an excused absence, but an absence nonetheless.
Waiakea’s Kelsie Imai missed her volleyball team’s match last Friday against Kealakehe, a three-set loss, because that’s what basketball players do when they have more pressing matters to attend to. Imai made her official visit to the University of Hawaii, and she plans to sign with the Wahine in November.
Imai is a classic three-sport high school athlete, but it’s clear which one butters her bread. When she left for her visit she was a basketball player – no slashes necessary to account for other sports – but something changed leading up to Monday night’s third set as she helped the Warriors stem the ride and revive their fortunes in a reverse sweep against Hilo in a front a charged up crowd at the Vikings’ gym.
Maybe it was the UH volleyball game she took in on Oahu over the weekend?
“To be honest,” Imai said, “I watched the Rainbows play, and I was like, “You know, maybe I can do it then.”
Whatever the case, the senior’s now a volleyball player, too.
“For real, that’s real,” Waiakea coach Ashley Hanohano said after her team’s 21-25, 12-25, 25-16, 25-22, 17-15 victory, which featured enough ebbs and flows and suspense to make up for a season’s worth of anticlimactic BIIF Division I volleyball play.
“This game was a whole new Imai. We haven’t seen this Imai,” Hanohano said.
Imai got going in the third set with five kills, as did fellow senior Michelle Vintero (four kills, two blocks in Game 3), and Kaena Kekaulua came on at libero to help the Warriors (10-2) avoid getting swept out of the building.
“The passes got better and the connection with the middles got way better,” Vintero said.
She compared Waiakea’s comeback – which wasn’t complete until Siera K-Aloha saved match point with a kill to make it 14-14 in the fifth set, then Bethany Honma, K-Aloha and Kailey Doll put down balls to record three of the last four three points – to the Warriors’ five-set win against Hilo in the 2017 BIIF championship game.
Kayla Kahauolopu was Waiakea’s workhorse in that match, and Vintero did a worthy impression in this one, especially when she took over the latter part of the third set.
“We kept on saying, ‘We got it, we got it,’ because it’s happened before,” Vintero said. “It was unbelievable. We fought for it.”
Waiakea’s win means it will match up again with Kealakehe (12-1) on Tuesday in the BIIF semifinals at Keaau. For their hard-fought loss on senior night, the Vikings (10-3) will draw front-runner Kamehameha (13-0).
“Waiakea came back stronger, more power to them,” Hilo coach Drew Fernandez said. “I told the girls to keep their heads up high, we’re not done yet.”
Imai must be a volleyball player now considering the way she battled against Vikings senior Mahala Ka’apuni, who finished with a match-high 19 kills. When Ka’apuni soars and slams a ball, it comes off her hand with a little more emphasis and attitude than others.
The first comeback of the match was authored by Ka’apuni and Hilo, who scored 15 of the last 18 points of the first set, and their momentum continued in a Game 2 rout. Seniors Tia Leao and Leiali’i Makekau-Whittaker added 12 and eight kills, respectively for the Vikings.
“The main thing I told the girls is believe,” Imai said. “If you believe, anything is possible.”
Imai came up with a big stuff of Ka’apuni in the fourth set to put the Warriors ahead 21-19, and two kills by Honma kept the Warriors in front.
Ka’apuni blocked Imai in the decisive set to force a 12-12 tie, but Imai came back and won the next point with a kill at the net against Ka’apuni. Makekau-Whittaker saved a match point for Hilo with a kill, but the Vikings couldn’t save a second on when Grace Nakoa-Oness set to to Doll, who is working her back from an ankle injury, for the game-winner on the left side.
“I feel this is my first big volleyball game where I reached my (potential),” Imai said. “I think I wanted this one so bad, and I wanted to make up, because I wasn’t there for the Kealakehe game. I feel like I owed them this game.”
The five-set thriller was played in stark contrast to much the of the BIIF season to date, which has been uneven. Kamehameha swept Waiakea and Hilo and dropped one set at Kealakehe, while the Waveriders swept the Vikings and Warriors on the road, and the matches only get more noncompetitive when the D-I teams played the smaller schools in D-II.
Hanohano favors an unbalanced schedule such as the one that was used two years ago, but, “This makes up for it,” she said. “Playing Hilo at the end, it makes a big difference for both teams. Both team played a great game and I give so much credit to my training coach (Jazmin Pa’akaula) for keeping them sharp.”
In the rematch against Kealakehe, Hanohano and Vintero said Waiakea’s blocking needs to get better.
It should help that Imai doesn’t plan to be absent this time.
“We played almost to our fullest today, ” she said. “We have to prepare a little bit more for the BIIF tournament and we’ll be OK.”