Tragedy to triumph


POSTED: Wednesday, September 09, 2009

She likes a challenge.

In fact, Zoe Young thrives on it. In two years, she went from no experience in volleyball to starting for the Roosevelt Rough Riders. She was brand new to beauty pageants before becoming the first runner-up in Miss Hawaii Teen in June.

“;I was shocked,”; she said, thinking about her parents Nelson and Bebe, who both died recently. “;My mom and dad, it felt like they were watching me, sitting in the audience. I felt like they were there.”;

Without a previous title, she wore her banner proudly: Miss Papakolea.

Pi'i, as she's better known to family, is focused these days. The Rough Riders are young, with just three seniors, but developing chemistry. Coach Rudy Sambrano had them in the gym on Labor Day, an early-morning workout one day before they faced powerful Moanalua. He coached the program's Blue team two years ago, when Pi'i began playing as a freshman.

“;She has a drive to make herself a better person,”; Sambrano said of the 5-foot-7 junior, adding that she has learned to stick to goals rather than cave to peer pressure.

Moanalua coach Tommy Lake is a volleyball lifer, but even he was surprised when he first met Pi'i last year. Lake, who coaches Oahu Volleyball Club in the offseason, usually hears about interested players through their parents. Pi'i went straight to Lake and asked about tryouts.

At the time, she had just two seasons of experience, but with OVC, her skill level and love for the game grew. Lake became a fan.

“;I love volleyball. It's fun and I've developed a lot. I just hope we play good,”; she said before yesterday's match with Lake's Moanalua squad. “;I want to show him I've gotten better.”;


SHE POPS UP in the morning announcements. The media class at Roosevelt does the daily ritual that is piped to each classroom's TV. Pi'i has spent time behind the camera and in front of it. At 16, she has a sports journalism career in mind.

With a 3.1 grade-point average, the blossoming volleyball future and pageant success — she was also named Miss Oahu Teen recently — it all seems like a dream. It's reality, though, just like everything that came before it.

Pi'i was barely old enough for elementary school when her mother became ill. A former volleyball player, Bebe was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, a debilitating disease that cost her short-term memory and mobility. Bebe was given 24-hour care in a facility in Makaha, leaving her husband to raise Pi'i and older brother Pono.

Nelson, like many single dads, struggled at times. Mark Yamane, a classmate of Nelson, and sister Annie stayed in touch with the children. Neighbors Jon and Lehua Matsuoka helped out, too. Still, as Pi'i got older, school just wasn't a priority. Her grades crashed.

That's when Auntie BJ Pi'ikea Hokoana stepped in. Pi'ikea — the younger Pi'i's namesake — ran a tight ship. Her sister, Bebe, was an athlete and artist. BJ was an athlete, too, but was also like a coach. An old-school coach.

Pi'i's ship began to turn around.


IN THE SPAN of a year, Nelson and Bebe were gone. Nelson died after suffering a heart attack. Bebe, who had moved to a hospice in Nuuanu, had a brain tumor. Surgery revealed that the tumor was malignant. Doctors gave her six months to live.

Her birthday came on June 5 and the family celebrated. Pono, the quiet one, played her a song on his homemade ukulele.

“;We were all in shock,”; BJ said. “;He's the introverted one. That was like Pi'i being on stage.”;

Four days later, on Pi'i's birthday, Bebe was in a coma. The following day, “;I felt something on my shoulder,”; BJ recalled. “;I felt her presence. Then I got a call saying she passed away.”;

Pi'i has learned to deal with all of it.

“;I always knew that she loved me. She was always excited when me and my brother visited her,”; she said.

Less than two weeks after Bebe's death, Pi'i was in the pageant. Offseason workouts with OVC continued while she went to summer school. BJ doesn't have to say much; Pi'i is in her element, pursuing her dreams. BJ just makes sure everything is prioritized.

“;My other half (James) says, 'You're two peas in a pod. You're too much alike,'”; BJ said.

Pi'i has learned to negotiate on her auntie's terms.

“;You want good grades, but they could still be better. You want to have a plan,”; she said. “;I never thought about those things unless you have someone there telling you.”;