The girls wrestling pipeline from West Maui to Great Falls, Mont., will grow a little bigger this fall.
The family atmosphere that symbolizes the Lahainaluna High School wrestling program will be bolstered in Big Sky country when Naiomi Kulukulualani-Sales and Kivah Caballero become roommates as they continue their wrestling careers in college at the University of Providence.
The pair of Maui Interscholastic League standouts will join the NAIA power in women’s wrestling with 2023 Hawaii High School Athletic Association state titles listed on their biographies.
Kulukulualani-Sales won the state title at 107 pounds and Caballero won at 122. The pair of Lunas state champs are The Maui News MIL Girls Wrestlers of the Year.
Lahainaluna’s Keawe Kane-Keahi and Kamehameha Maui’s Mikah Labuanan are The Maui News MIL Boys Wrestlers of the Year after also claiming state gold.
The Maui News MIL Wrestling All-Star teams, for girls and boys, are made up of the league champions from each of 14 weight classes on each side of the docket. State placers who were not MIL champions make up the Honorable Mention list.
Kulukulualani-Sales was not planning on attending college until winning the state crown in late February.
“Being a senior this year, it went by so fast … Lahainaluna Wrestling did a lot for me,” Kulukulualani-Sales said on Thursday. “It’s crazy, it’s like a family.”
The pair of Lunas seniors became practice partners this season after their previous partners were injured.
“Me and Kivah are like best friends,” Kulukulualani-Sales said. “So, for us to be in college together is just so great because it’s kind of far away and we kind of just wanted to be together, so we were kind of just planning on, hoping that we will get the same opportunities and we did. It is awesome that we get to be together for four more years.
“There’s not that many people that we know over there, so this will be awesome for us.”
Ivy Navarro, a Lahainaluna graduate, was an assistant coach this season for the Lunas after an All-American career at Providence that included an NAIA runner-up finish. Younger sister Ira Navarro won the school’s first NAIA individual national title this season.
“She was trying to get me to go there all year,” Kulukulualani-Sales said of Ivy Navarro. “I was having second thoughts of going to college in the first place, but she was telling me, ‘It’s a good school.’ Obviously, her sister was national champ, so she was really trying to get me to go there.”
Winning the state crown changed Kulukulualani-Sales’ mind about attending college.
“During the wrestling season I didn’t want to go to college at all, like, I was set on not going to college,” Kulukulualani-Sales said. “But winning the state championship was, like, ‘Oh, I can actually do it. I can actually accomplish winning more and I don’t want to stop at state champ, I want to keep going,’ expanding my goal because my goal before was to win a state championship. Now, I want to keep going.”
Caballero said Wednesday, that “I’m actually really excited, I always wanted to wrestle in college, so it’s actually so great that I’m going to the same school as Ivy because I’ve always looked up to her, she’s been such a great coach for the past year. … I’m just glad to follow in (her) footsteps.”
Going to Montana with her lifelong friend is a dream come true for Caballero.
“I always wanted to go up to college with my friends, so I’m glad ‘Omi is coming with me, so we can just grow and stay together and just see what college has in store for us,” Caballero said.
Kane-Keahi, a Lahainaluna senior who won the 195-pound state crown, and Labuanan, a Kamehameha Maui sophomore who won the 132 state title, have earned the top MIL honor for the boys.
Kane-Keahi and Kulukulualani-Sales are cousins and all three Lunas state champs grew up together.
“We all are really close,” Kulukulualani-Sales said. “We’re with each other almost every day, so just having us three win it all was crazy. We’re all just like basically siblings.”
Kane-Keahi is currently planning to play college football, although he has not ruled out wrestling at the next level yet. He wants to become a physical education teacher and a coach in the future.
Kulukulualani-Sales’ state title match was right before Kane-Keahi took the mat for his championship tilt — her title fired him up.
“It made me like super excited, it got me pumped up for my match, especially because she was right before mine,” Kane-Keahi said, adding that watching Caballero win her match “was super exciting, too, because Kivah was always with me, too, because my dad used to take her with us, take her to go watch states and stuff before we were even in high school.”
Labuanan is the only two-time state champion from the MIL this season and will be the only one of the four state gold medalists to return next year. He beat Mililani’s Jaren Kimura 5-4 in his 132-pound championship match, avenging a close loss to Kimura in the preseason Officials tournament in December.
Labuanan went 2-2 in the U.S. Open tournament on Thursday in Las Vegas, competing in the greco-roman 65-kilogram under-17 division. Labuanan was giving up some weight and a year of age to his opponents and greco-roman, where it is concentrated on upper-body grappling, is not his favorite style of the sport.
“I learned a lot, this is my first time wrestling greco in over a year,” Labuanan said. “The first match (a 12-3 loss) I just wasn’t used to it. After that, I was so much better, I was used to it.”
Labuanan is set to compete in freestyle this weekend and his two victories Thursday — by scores of 8-0 and 14-7 — will help him going forward, boosting his confidence.
“Oh, yeah, it definitely does, it shows me that I can hang with the best, especially in the U-17 bracket,” Labuanan said.
In two weeks Labuanan will travel to the Western Regional Championships in Utah. He is also a standout soccer player, but he says his focus is turning solidly in the wrestling direction.
“I’ve been thinking like that for a little while now, I have one more big soccer trip and then after that I’m just going to focus on wrestling,” Labuanan said.
Labuanan has the chance to become the first four-time boy state champion wrestler ever from the MIL, a possibility he does not take for granted.
“That’s my biggest goal right now,” he said. “Like, that’s at the top of my goals, I think about it every day. I’ve dreamed about it since I was a little kid, watching all my older high school friends wrestle and just seeing how they’d do and wanting to be the best.”
* Robert Collias is at firstname.lastname@example.org.