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Wrestling event gives girls an early challenge

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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
Apelila Hokoana, right, a Pearl City senior who placed third in last year's state tournament, will attend her first wrestling clinic during the Punahou Challenge. "This will be very awesome, a good experience for me," she said.

Kaulanarose Akaka and Charisse Manley of the Molokai High School girls wrestling team are looking forward to competing in the inaugural Punahou Invitational Girls Wrestling Challenge this weekend.

"It’s a big thing. It’s almost like a state tournament at the beginning of the season. There will be a lot of competition and more pressure," said Akaka, a senior who last season decided to forfeit a state tournament match because it was pushed back to a Sunday, causing a conflict with her Mormon beliefs.

Manley, a junior who last year placed fourth in the state at 130 pounds, added that the tournament, also known as the Paani Challenge, will allow her to "get into the season at full blast and to see where I am (against statewide competition). It will also be good to begin the season learning what things I need to work on."

PUNAHOU INVITATIONAL GIRLS WRESTLING CHALLENGE

» What: Largest preseason girls wrestling tournament in Hawaii with approximately 280 girls competing

» When: Friday and Saturday

» Where: Punahou School

» Schedule: Friday: wrestling clinic, 2:30-4 p.m.; weigh-ins, 4:30-5:30 p.m.; dinner with speakers, including championship wrestler Danyelle Hedin, 5-8 p.m. Saturday: tournament, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Akaka and Manley are among the approximately 280 prep girl wrestlers from 26 schools across the state who will participate in what should be one of the top three prep girls wrestling tournaments in the nation "in terms of participation," said tournament chairman David Lundquist, whose daughter, Punahou senior Kaimana Lundquist, is the state girls defending champion at 155 pounds.

The largest contingent — 31 — is coming from Pearl City. Farrington is sending 24; Punahou, which is seeking its third consecutive girls team championship, 22; and Radford and Kamehameha, 18 each. Teams from the neighbor islands will also participate, including Maui, Lahainaluna, Kamehameha-Hawaii and Lanai.

Looking to the future, Punahou Challenge organizers are considering inviting mainland high school girls wrestling teams to the tournament, perhaps even as early as next year.

"That would be great," said Mike Lee, coach of the large and highly regarded boys and girls wrestling program at Pearl City.

Randy Manley, a pastor who is coaching the Molokai team for a 12th season and who is the father of Charisse Manley, said the travel and lodging subsidies offered to participating wrestlers and coaches from the neighbor isles by tournament sponsors means Molokai can be represented by eight girls rather than "two or three who would have had to pay their own way."

The Punahou Challenge will undoubtedly help foster girls wrestling in the state, said Manley, whose current roster of 13 is an all-time high for the school. He remembers when girls wrestling began in Hawaii about a decade ago. It was common for schools to field teams with only one or two girls.

The Punahou preseason tournament — being held nearly three months before the state prep wrestling championships — will be unique; not only because it will be an all-girls statewide event, said Lundquist, a Punahou graduate who was crowned boys wrestling champion in the 180-pound class in 1968. Its mission is to further raise the level of competition and offer wider competition for all girls, even nonstarters.

That’s why teams were invited to bring their entire squad, and not just their starters, Lundquist said. While the top competitors will be seeded, every girl participating will have at least two to three matches, he added.

Punahou athletic director Jeaney Garcia said that while isle boys usually have about 30 actual matches before the state tournament begins, for girls, it is 10. At Pearl City, one way for members of the girls team to practice at a high level is to wrestle a boy grappler; but only if each participant is comfortable with a mixed-gender match, said Lee, who wrestled for Pearl City in the late 1980s.

When boy wrestlers lose a mixed-gender practice match, "it makes them work harder," Lee observed.

For Apelila Hokoana, a Pearl City senior who last year finished third in the state at 120 pounds, the Punahou Challenge will be an opportunity to attend her first wrestling clinic and to hear speakers discuss women in athletics.

"This will be very awesome, a good experience for me," she said.

The clinic will be led by Danyelle Hedin, a three-time state champion while at Kailua High in the early 2000s. She went on to become a national champion and a medalist for the USA world wrestling team.

Noel Pacarro Brown, the tournament’s keynote speaker, said her message to the young girls will be: "Don’t look at limitations, look for possibilities and create your own destiny."

Another scheduled speaker, Garcia, said she plans to share how sports shaped her personal journey through life.

As a high schooler in Kansas, she wanted to play a winter sport. But she was cut from the girls basketball team and was unable to wrestle because there was no girls wrestling program. Despite the setbacks, Garcia became a record-settling high school miler, and went on to run cross country and play basketball at Kansas State.

"Sports can help you build self-confidence and self-esteem, and it can serve as a solid foundation, no matter what career you choose," she said.

 

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