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Young Leilehua Water Polo Team Has Eye On State Title

The Leilehua girls water polo team entered 2015 certain of one distinction — having the youngest lineup in the OIA.

That the Mules would find themselves with a 6-1 record at the midway point of the season despite their youthful roster was less certain, to hear Leilehua coach Nate Higa tell it.

“I think they’ve already accomplished quite a bit for a young team,” he said.

To be sure, these Mules are the youngest in Higa’s 12-year run at Leilehua.

“In the past, we’ve always had two or three players who had been with us for three or four years. With this group, we have six sophomores in their second year, one junior who didn’t play last year, and the rest are freshmen. We’re hoping they stay intact. When they’re seniors, we should be even more competitive as far as moving higher in the OIA.”

Despite the excitement about future success, 2015 has been a solid season for the Mules, who have made the state tournament four of the past five years.

One game into the OIA’s second round, Leilehua has posted wins over McKinley, Campbell, Farrington, Kalaheo, Mililani and Pearl City. (The Mules’ two defeats at press time came from East powers Kaiser and Kalani.)

In addition to their pursuit of another state tourney berth, Higa said the team also has rallied around assistant coach Robyn Araki, whose 1-year-old niece Curryn recently was diagnosed with leukemia.

“We dedicated the season to her and had shirts made up with her name and a ribbon on it,” Higa said. “Every day we remind ourselves that others have it worse than we do and that we should be grateful for the opportunity to play water polo.”

What the Leilehua team lacked in game experience they’ve made up for through their athleticism. (Ten of the Mules’ 19 players also are competitive swimmers for Leilehua.)

“It’s been a collective effort,” Higa said of his team’s start. “We don’t have an All-Star like Kapolei has in Tiala (Wendt), but we have some pretty athletic girls.”

Mules sophomore goal-keeper Chyel Palmer has been among the team’s leaders.

“She has a basketball background, so she’s pretty athletic, and she understands the game,” Higa said. “She keeps us in a lot of games.

“We like to stress playing good defense,” he added. “We start with (teaching) defense, and then we hope our offense will eventually start clicking. We have to work on our offense, being that we have so many new players. We have to work on our shooting and our passing to get where we want to be.”

Leilehua was to play Kapolei over the weekend before turning its attention to this Saturday’s season finale against defending OIA champion Kahuku. The game will start at 10:30 a.m. at Central Oahu Regional Park.

The OIA tournament is April 30-May 2 at CORP, where the top six finishers earn berths to the state championships, set for May 5-8 at University of Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex.