THE HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Careena Onosai thought she was going to go shoot baskets with her father one day, but ended up throwing a shot put and a discus for the first time.
The Word of Life athlete will compete in throwing events for UCLA
CAREENA Onosai trusted wisdom and took the route one step at a time. Now, the circle is complete. She is a two-time state champion in the discus, an all-state first-teamer in volleyball.
The next voyage will literally take the Word of Life Academy student to a new world, one that she never really imagined or wanted. Careena Onosai will be a UCLA Bruin this fall.
"The place is huge," says her father, Joe Onosai. "We have two hallways at our school."
At UCLA, she has a chance to learn from the best field coaches in the country. The word "Olympian" is but a whisper today, but it has earned a place in the vocabulary of anyone who has seen Onosai's talent.
She threw the discus 151 feet, 9 inches to rule the field as a sophomore. Last year, she put the shot 40-5, a personal best. And track and field isn't even her first love.
THEY DO EVERYTHING together. Their silver mini-van takes them from Central Oahu to Kakaako daily, where Joe and Ann Onosai head the athletic department. Their oldest child, Talia, was the first to dive into varsity athletics. Careena and Shayna, just one year apart from each other, were also natural athletes.
That's no surprise. Joe starred at Pac-Five, a 240-pound fullback who led the program to its only Prep Bowl championship in 1983. After a stellar career at Hawaii, he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. A serious neck injury, however, cut short his promising career.
WORD OF LIFE didn't have a gym to call home until recently, but seven years ago, the school was alive and well. The Firebrands made do with whatever facilities were available, and Careena's dream was to follow in Talia's footsteps.
"I looked up to her. We used to live by a park in Kaneohe, and I'd shoot baskets every day with my sisters and dad," she says.
Along with other fifth graders at Word of Life, they formed a team called the Warriors. By seventh grade, she was in a Kalakaua basketball clinic. She was a basketball lifer.
Somewhere along the way, though, she gave volleyball a try.
"It was sixth grade. I thought it was hard. I was a tomboy back then. I thought volleyball was for girlie-girls," Careena admits.
It wasn't until eighth grade that track and field became any kind of possibility.
"We were just starting up our track program," Joe Onosai says. "I knew we had runners, but nothing else. I had an old shot put, an old discus. I told the girls, 'Let's go shoot some baskets.' "
Careena had no idea about her father's grand plan, but she took to the strange field toys.
"I actually caught on to the shot put first," she says.
By her sophomore season, just two years after picking up her first discus, 5-foot-11 Careena was on pace to become one of the best throwers in Hawaii history. Volleyball, however, was her best sport, at least then. And basketball?
By spring of her junior year, her focus on track and field, and club volleyball made basketball an impossible fit. First love was done.
"Giving up basketball was hard. I'm close to a lot of our players," she says. "But I'm glad I gave it up."
The commitment to volleyball led to a walk-on offer from Hawaii.
A MONTH AGO, Careena and her dad landed in Los Angeles for a visit to the UCLA campus. After a couple of days, UCLA was pleased, apparently. A partial-scholarship track-and-field offer was upped to a full ride.
Joe's jaw dropped. Careena was stunned. After all, none of the UCLA coaches had seen her throw the discus in person.
Careena, who dreamed of playing volleyball at UH, suddenly had a dilemma on her hands.
"I had a hard time when I came back from UCLA. If they were going to do a partial, I was just going to stay," she says.
UCLA's commitment to her has been remarkable, considering a lower-back injury that has kept her off the field. Careena didn't stress about it. She rehabilitated her back daily and regained enough strength to return to the game she loved first.
Her return to basketball invigorated the Firebrand program. They've lost their share of close games to some of the top Division II teams in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, but her height, strength and skills (17 points per game) have been invaluable.
"This year, I'm doing it for fun," she says. "My sister is the man now."
She is at least a week away from returning to the discus. Because of the absence, she has yet to qualify for the states.
FLORIDA IS ON the other coast, but Selala Sua's journey to UCLA has striking parallels to Careena Onosai's. Sua was a three-sport standout, yet gave up her favorites to focus on track and field in college. As UCLA's discus coach, she sees tremendous potential in Careena.
"She really believes in me. She thinks I can really go far as an athletic thrower," Careena says. "She said that I'm someone who really works hard. I won't be as good as the people there now, but I could if I keep working hard."
When high school track season is over, she'll compete in as many as three major national meets, including one that is a qualifier for the Junior Nationals. UCLA's indoor season begins in January where Careena will compete in the weight throw and the shot put.
When the outdoor season starts in March, she'll be in four events. The Bruins like what she does in the discus and shot put, but they will also train her to excel in the javelin and hammer. "She's always loved to throw things since she was little," Ann Onosai says.