HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Laurel Ramiro, 17, practiced her moves on Lisa Katsura, 18, at the Moanalua gym. The school's girls wrestling program has come a long way since its inception in 1998.
The Moanalua community spawned a girls wrestling power
AN OLD African proverb states that "it takes a village to raise a child." At Moanalua High School, an appropriate statement would follow that it takes a community to build a program.
Since girls wrestling became a sanctioned sport by the Hawaii High School Athletic Association in 1998, Moanalua has been at the front of the pack, winning three team state championships and finishing as state runner-up three other times in the eight years the girls have had their own statewide showcase.
In those eight years, Moanalua wrestlers have claimed 11 individual state championships, including four from Caylene Valdez, the only Hawaii female grappler to win the HHSAA title in each of her seasons in high school
On the national level, seven Moanalua wrestlers have earned All-American distinction, with three -- Shani Alvarado ('02), Stephany Lee ('02) and Valdez ('03) -- winning national titles.
Lee, who now wrestles in the 72-kg weight class, has quickly become one of the most successful prep wrestlers to come out of Hawaii. Currently a junior at Missouri Valley College, Lee is the top-ranked college wrestler in North America in her weight class by USA Wrestling.
A veteran of international meets, Lee won gold at both the University Women's World Championships in Poland and the Pan Am Championships in Guatemala City last year. This year, Lee again earned the top spot on the winner's podium, taking the prestigious Sunkist Kids/Arizona State International Open in October.
Fellow Moanalua alum and Missouri Valley teammate Clarissa Calibuso has also emerged as one of the nation's best, opening this year among the top-ranked athletes at 55 kg.
As unbelievable as it may seem, the only thing more astounding than the meteoric rise of the Menehune girls wrestling program to national prominence is trying to find someone who takes much credit for the construction of the prep power.
AS WOULD BE expected, starting a program involving so much physical contact and injury concerns took a little creativity and a lot of convincing.
"The hard part was convincing the girls and their parents that it was a viable sport," said former coach and current Moanalua athletic director Joel Kawachi. "But we had to get the parents to trust us, and ensure the girls that you could get a real sense of accomplishment in wrestling. Once we started having success, more girls started coming out."
Kawachi, who coached all three Menehune state championship squads, is quick to credit George Goto, who helped the girls program get a quick leg up.
"It certainly was not all because of one person, we were lucky," Kawachi said. "Our AD at the time was George Goto, our former wrestling coach, and he really believed in the sport and pushed for it and gender equity in the sport throughout the state. His support really allowed me to go out into the school and the community and recruit and break the stereotypes that people had about the sport.
"We actually started our recruiting in the National Honor Society and Student Government. We pursued some of the best academic kids because we knew they weren't quitters. In this sport, it's too easy to get frustrated and give up. We had to get the ones that knew what it took to succeed."
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Moanalua defending state champion Danica Kamakana, 16, tried to work her way out of 13-year-old Liko Fukumoto's hold during a recent practice.
Current Menehune senior Alicia Fu began wrestling after a simple trip to Kawachi's office to inquire about joining a school club.
"I actually went in to see Mr. Kawachi about joining the Leo Club," Fu said. "He heard that I was in judo, so he started calling my parents about wrestling and talking to me about it, so I came out."
For senior co-captain Ku'ulei Nitta, joining wrestling came about in a very different way.
"My older sister Maile wrestled at Kamehameha and would pull all these painful moves on me, so I wanted to learn how to combat them," Nitta said. "I came out for the team here and just fell in love with it. I think all girls should wrestle."
Kawachi noted that different kinds of athletes can excel on the mat.
"We've always had success with all types of girls," he said. "Some of our state placers and runners-up had never played a sport before, and, of course, we've had the naturally talented types like the Caylene Valdez's and Stephany Lee's."
Kawachi, a former collegiate wrestler at Chico State in California, pointed to the high level of competition and cooperation within the state for helping groom many Menehunes for wrestling at the national level.
"There are several really outstanding wrestling programs here in Hawaii," Kawachi said. "Kahuku, Farrington, McKinley, they all have really strong programs as well as some of the private schools. It really helped with national exposure early on that we were all on the same page. We as coaches talked and tried to get the girls from all of the schools noticed, so we took mixed teams to national tournaments and the girls did well, and it's all grown from there."
WITH A SEASONED roster returning, the 2006 edition of Moanalua wrestling is looking to compete on the state level once again.
Sophomore Danica Kamakana is back a year after sweeping both the state and OIA championships at 125 pounds as a freshman, as is two-time state tournament runner-up Fu. Lisa Katsura, who finished fifth in the HHSAA championships at 108 pounds last year and was second in the state as a sophomore, is also back, as is Nitta, who missed all of last season due to a concussion after placing third in the OIA the previous year.
The emergence of junior Ariella Ing has also been a boost for the squad. Ing won her weight division in a preseason tournament on Maui and was also named the event's outstanding wrestler.
All are aware of the prestige of the Moanalua girls program and aim to keep the tradition alive.
"I think it's great that Moanalua has such a great name, but people expect a lot," Nitta said. "Our program has such a good reputation that we don't wanna mess it up, we just wanna keep it going."
Kamakana, who also won an OIA judo championship last year, feels fortunate to be a part of something special.
"It's kind of awesome to know that people will remember you for what you did as a wrestler," Kamakana said. "It's pretty awesome to be a part of your school's history, but it's not just us. A lot of our success comes from the boys team. We practice with them and we know how hard they have to work and they really push us. We try to do well for them, too."
Head coach Eddie Gudoy is a Moanalua alum, who logged over 20 years as an assistant coach with the Menehunes program before taking over for the 2004 season. He attributes much of the program's success to many past and current assistant coaches.
"We've always had some talent here, but a lot of people put in a lot of time here," Gudoy said. "Coach Goto, who was my coach here, Joel (Kawachi), Dean Casupang, and even now we have Al Chee as an assistant coach. He won two boys state championships as head coach at Kamehameha and he's been with us for the past couple years.
"The work of all of those other coaches makes my job a lot easier."
THE FUTURE OF girls wrestling at Moanalua and in the state of Hawaii in general seems bright. With 34 schoolgirls from Hawaii having earned All-America distinction from Wrestling Magazine and The Mat.com/ASICS since 1999, Hawaii has received more than its fair share of national recognition.
Five more Hawaii grapplers are ranked among the top 10 in the nation in their respective weight classes in the United States Girls Wrestling Association preseason rankings this year, including Kara Takasaki of Punahou, who holds the top spot in the 130-pound class.
Nearly a dozen local products are currently wrestling at the collegiate level.
"It's bigger than just Moanalua," Kawachi said. "It is the whole state of Hawaii. We all help each other out. When we go to nationals, we take girls from other schools with us to give them a chance to get exposure, and we work together and help the wrestlers out. The entire state of Hawaii benefits from it."