BIIF wrestling: Coaches like Hilo’s Taniguchi want to see Big Islanders thrive

  • Kealakehe’s Kelii Pelekane, top, wrestles Hilo’s Hanalei Kahookaulana on Saturday during a BIIF wrestling meet at the Vikings’ gym. Pelekane, the defending BIIF champion at 145 pounds, won the bout 15-11. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

HILO – It’s been six seasons and counting since a BIIF boys wrestler claimed a state gold medal, but all is not lost.

There are several league coaches on the case.

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Hilo High’s Ryan Taniguchi missed the opening BIIF meet last weekend because he was on Oahu fulfilling his role as the Vikings’ football team’s strength and conditioning coach.

On Saturday at the Viks gym he was able to dive head-first into his next ambition: strengthening the wrestling scene for Hilo and the Big Island as a whole.

“The kids and the community have come a long way with wrestling, with adapting to wrestling and involving wrestling,” Taniguchi said. “We’re growing because our programs are growing, because of the engagement all of the coaches are having at that lower level.”

Taniguchi’s background is at Lahainaluna, so he knows something about developing the culture of a neighbor island program that can compete against the best on Oahu. Maui, in fact, has been able to produce two state powers, with Baldwin winning the girls state crown in 2018 after the Lunas won a girls title in 2017 and the boys title two years earlier.

“Continuous, they wrestle all year round,” Taniguchi said. “That what’s me, (Kealakehe coach) Ivan (Louis), a lot of the coaches are trying to bring and we are slowing doing it. We all have summer programs, youth programs that we all coach.”

“We don’t wrestle enough in the BIIF,” he said.

That is changing for the better, however.

The schedule has expanded this season, with a third meet on tap this Saturday at Waiakea and five more scheduled for 2019 before the BIIF championships Feb. 19 at Keaau High.

“A lot of the coaches wanted a longer season, and the (administrators) listened,” Louis said.

During the holiday break, there are at least three tournaments on Oahu for teams to consider – Officials (Dec. 21-22), Moanalua Duals (Dec. 28-29) and the Pa’ani Challenge (Dec. 28-29) – and Taniguchi is entering his wrestlers in all three.

Taniguchi and Louis also have scheduled a dual meet Jan. 23 at Kealakehe as part of the Waveriders’ senior night.

“Keep them busy,” Taniguchi said.

In his second season, Taniguchi said his program’s roster size has doubled into the mid-40s. The girls squad should be able to fill 14 weight classes, which is half the battle toward becoming a contender, though dethroning the Waveriders figures to be no easy task.

Ashley Lavarias (112 pounds) and Hula Kahookaulana (132) are two of the Hilo’s top girls contenders.

“They’re in the weight room three days a week before practice,” Taniguchi said, speaking as his wrestlers as a whole. “Always have that foundation, when you match up technique against technique, the stronger, more endured person is going to win.”

Reminded that a BIIF boys wrestler hasn’t topped the state podium since Konawaena’s Sage Aoki and Kamehameha’s Akoakoa Paleka-Kennedy in 2012, Taniguchi said look no further than Vikings junior Elijah Apao, who was back on the mat Saturday after wrapping up his football season.

“I truly believe he has a really good chance,” Taniguchi said.

The BIIF champ at 132 last season, Apao is slated to wrestle at 138 this season as junior Ian Manarpaac fills the void at 132.

While Taniguchi and Louis both have healthy roster sizes in the 40s, Keaau’s Keith Fernandez has seen his room almost triple in nature with 74 wrestlers on hand, including 53 boys.

“A lot of them that came out just wanted a challenge,” Fernandez said. “I got a lot of newbies looking to get in shape and they hear the experiences that past wrestlers had as far as the tightness. They like the fact that it’s a big family.

“Our room is packed, so there no room for anything but wrestling.”

For now, his hope is that the Cougars’ quantity will yield quality, but two undefeated wrestlers as of the midway point of Saturday’s meet were Maka Aiwohi, a state qualifier in wrestling and judo last season, and Nathaniel Castillo.

He tabbed his program as a work-in-progress that should be competitive by the end of the season, and come Monday the culture will have changed at practice.

“Everybody got a chance to wrestle, and now the room should be at a different level and that’s what I’ve been waiting for,” he said.

There are no state droughts on the girls side, not with Konawaena’s Kapoina Bailey and Kealakehe’s Roxie Umu back for their senior seasons after winning their first Hawaii crowns.

Walter Watson’s Wildcats don’t have the numbers of some other BIIF programs, but they have a role model in Bailey, who also claimed state judo gold.

“I tell them look at (her),” Watson said. “(She) used to be just starting out as well.”

Bailey and Umu are both expected to compete in the same weight class from a year ago, 168 and 184, respectively.

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Umu will compete at the Pa’ani Challenge, a state sneak preview of sorts. Usually, she’s the hunter, but it will be the rest of the state competition that is trying to size her up this time.

“It’s different for her, for sure,” Louis said. “She’ll get a lot of attention.”