Kahuku Heads to NIT a Year Stronger
Interior photos: Jackie Finlan
Kahuku is traveling across five time zones to compete in the High School National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and returns as the 2017 runner-up. Some things have remained the same since the Hawaiian team's last visit to the middle of the country - local competition is lacking, only five players graduated - while some beneficial changes have occurred within the organization.
After finishing second to Divine Savior Holy Angels in the 2017 single-school NIT, interest at home boomed.
"We have a really good following out there," Kahuku coach Nusi Tukuafu said. "Our U14 girls blew up from 14 to 28 players, and those are the younger sisters of these girls saying, 'I want to play rugby now.' We have about 50 girls on the high school team, so we doubled our numbers."
Those numbers were on display at the Kickoff Tournament (KOT), the culminating event of a NorCal tour earlier this year. Kahuku brought two full 15s teams and lined up against the area's best teams to jumpstart the spring season.
"We brought two teams because when we go to nationals, we’re only going to take one, and I want the younger girls to get the experience so they can say they came to the mainland, they played, and that gives them more of a drive to make it on that first team going to nationals," Tukuafu said back in January.
The NorCal tour was the highlight of the competitive season, as the girls' high school teams, and even the women's clubs on Oahu, are waning in strength.
"It just seems more like they are giving up," the coach said. "Other teams we play [have the mindset of], 'These guys and are going to get beat us up so why even try?' That’s why we decided to come to the KOT, just to get pre-season games. We’ve been playing alumni and women’s teams just to get games."
The KOT provided a starting point, and then after a season of cancellations and 10s, Kahuku defeated a combined squad from the Big Island's Hilo Reign and Kona Bulls 61-0 in the state championship.
"Obviously the experience level was in favor of Kahuku but the Big Island always brings the physicality," Tukuafu reviewed. "We had multiple players scoring and making big plays so it was a team effort on our part, so we gave the Lady of the Match to the impact player of the combined team, Leini Fong, who played outstanding all game."
Kahuku has focused its energies inward, relying on intra-squad games to stay sharp and build chemistry. There is some new influence with players getting next-level experience, though. Three players were invited to the Girls' High School All-American camps at Chula Vista, as Emilie Bydwell narrowed down the pool for the Youth Olympic Games qualifier team. Taylor Marasco made the squad that competed in Las Vegas and finished second to Canada, while Taina Scott and Nohea Uluave were named as reserves.
Kanani Uluave and Amberae Falemalu return as captains and they're two of nine starters from last year's NIT team. They're integral to leading varsity practices while Tukuafu gives time to the second side, developing the burgeoning ranks for seasons to come.
"The girls are pretty confident that they'll perform well at NIT since we've had the chemistry back in January before the NorCal tour," the coach summarized. "Now with our season done and working with the same group of core players, they're confident they'll go far and make it to the final round where we were last year. With the final schedule drawn up, we could be facing the Dashers in the semifinal round, which we're really excited for, to finally get a rematch of last year's final and try and right our wrong."
The single-school division plays Saturday-Sunday, while the high school clubs play Friday-Saturday. Click here for the full schedule.