Kaiser shuts down Kahuku to stay undefeated
KAIMUKI — Another season in Oahu Interscholastic Association girls water polo, and another undefeated start by the Kahuku Red Raiders — until Wednesday afternoon.
In a battle of unbeaten teams, the Kaiser Cougars shut down the Red Raiders and scored four unanswered second half goals to move into sole possession of first place in the OIA standings with a 6-5 victory at Kaimuki High School.
Down by one with just over two minutes left in the game, Kaiser's Taylor Kuroiwa went for it all on a shot attempt over the top from just beyond five meters out, but the ball hit the crossbar and bounced to the left for a waiting Noelle Nakakura to knock it in and tie the match, 5-5.
"It was just instinct. I saw the ball, I saw the opening and I just automatically shot," Nakakura said. "I wasn't ecstatic or anything because I didn't realize it. It just happened."
Twenty seconds later and in the blink of an eye, the Cougars took the lead on Erin Patterson's game winner from the four spot off the right side just beyond five meters.
"Usually our team is a driving team so we need the speed," Patterson said. "I was thinking, ‘Might as well get the thing moving,' and I actually got open. I was like, ‘Oh I'm not going to make this shot anyways so I might as well try,' but then I swung around and it went through her arms."
The Red Raiders got another shot attempt off down the other side but it fell short, and the Cougars held on for the final 35 seconds to seal what many of their players and fans are calling a historic victory.
"It was coming to this point the whole season," Kaiser coach Asa Tanaka said. "Everything came together for us in the end. We've never beaten this team in the history of Kaiser water polo so it was really good to finally get one under our belt."
Kahuku (8-1) has been a staple of OIA girls water polo, having won all but one of the league's 15 championships including the last eight. They've been off to another dominant run this season with an average a margin of victory of more than 11 points in six of their victories played (the other two wins were via forfeit).
On the other hand, the Cougars (10-0) are coming off a 9-6 season in which they lost five of their last seven games and ended with a fifth place finish in the OIA Playoffs and a first round exit in the state tournament. But the early success they saw last season — winning 7 of their first 8 games — has resurfaced this year to set-up the big matchup between the two teams.
"I was coming in here shaking," Kaiser's Nakakura said. "I couldn't eat last night. I had a hard time sleeping. When we were coming over, I was almost shaking and it felt like shivers when I thought about the game."
But with the first whistle, Kaiser looked poised and ready as they got on the board first at the 4:49 mark off Megan Kaneshiro's shot from just beyond the 5-meter line. Kahuku responded with goals 49 seconds apart from Sophie Wilson and Ava Countryman. Kuroiwa tied the game up for the Cougars about 30 seconds later in a man-up situation.
"I think after we got two shots, and they weren't racking up the score," Noelle said of when she felt a bit more comfortable. "I was expecting it to be in the ‘10s. We were able to keep our defense up and that made me realize that we can actually do this and we have chance. I've seen games where the score was five apart and the lower team still won. Just got to believe in yourself."
After three straight goals from Kahuku — two more from Wilson and one more from Countryman — to take a 5-2 lead into halftime, Kaiser flipped the script to outscore the Red Raiders, 4-0, the rest of the way.
"There was no focus on shutting them down," Tanaka said of wanting to stick to playing their own game. "I always say we're a swim team that plays water polo. We're not a true water polo team. We play with speed and chaos."
Still, Kahuku was able to fire seven shots on goal in the second half but all were saved by Kaiser goalkeeper Bay Hamby.
"When I looked at her in the second half, she had that ‘in the zone' eyes," Tanaka said of Hamby, who had 10 total saves. "How she talks to the rest of the team during the breaks, you can tell she wanted it. I guess the girls felt her intensity."
Intensity, as well as capitalizing on the breaks.
In addition to Nakakura's rebound goal, Kuroiwa netted her second goal of the game on the first score of the Cougars' 4-0 run after firing toward the left side from about five meters out. The ball was met midway with a swat attempt from Kahuku's Wilson that slowed the ball just enough to float past goalkeeper Kimbrell Kunz's subsequent mistimed lunge.
"They are a really tough, strong team and we're more of a fluid team," Patterson said. "We had to practice really hard on playing more static because we weren't getting a lot of drives to get open.
"Most of our shots were foul shots or very lucky or hard shots," she continued, with a laugh.
Kaiser will finish out the regular season against Kalaheo (7-2) and Campbell (4-4) while Kahuku will close with Moanalua (7-3) and Roosevelt (8-1).
The OIA Playoffs will be held the following week with the championship game on Saturday, April 21 at 1:30 p.m. at the K. Mark Takai Veteran's Memorial Aquatic Center at Patsy T. Mink Central Oahu Regional Park in Waipio.