Santiago returns after missing competition
By Kalani Takase
Advertiser Staff Writer
For Anela Santiago, this weekend has been two years in the making.
The Kahuku junior wrestler finished second in the state as a freshman and after a year away from the sport she loves, Santiago will get a shot at redemption beginning tomorrow.
The Hawai'i High School Athletic Association/Chevron Wrestling State Championships are tomorrow and Saturday at the Blaisdell Arena. Matches begin at 10 a.m. tomorrow and will include qualifying, preliminary and quarterfinal rounds along with two consolation rounds. Saturday's action includes semifinals and two consolation rounds; the finals are expected to begin around 3 p.m.
Santiago began wrestling with her father's club as a third-grader and soon after couldn't get enough of the sport.
"It's just fun," said Santiago, the No. 1 seed in the 140-pound division this week. "I've just always been doing it, (so) it's a big part of me.
Kahuku coach Reggie Torres was impressed with Santiago when she joined his team as a freshman.
"She was already a great athlete," Torres said. "She already had a background because her dad had her wrestling in PAL. Anela is a good kid, hard worker and very coachable."
Torres calls Santiago "just a happy kid, always smiling, always positive," but a different person on the mat.
"She's usually a pretty shy girl, but when she's on the mat, she just becomes a lot more aggressive and she takes it right to her opponent," Torres said.
Santiago explained it's a matter of focus.
"I'm just trying to stay focused in every match I wrestle," she said. "I try to get my moves down better and keep working toward getting better."
After losing in the 130-pound state final two years ago, Santiago opted for some time away from the mat, but soon enough the itch returned.
"I didn't to want to wrestle at first last year, but after a while I wanted to again," Santiago said. "I guess I just missed wrestling — being on the mat and practicing."
She returned to the Red Raiders this year and after working out some kinks, Santiago has since breezed through the competition.
"She had to work to get back into shape," Torres said. "She did good, but she just looked rusty early in the season. As she wrestled more and more matches, she got better and better and better."
Santiago captured the O'ahu Interscholastic Association championship last weekend and the Eastern Division title two weeks before that. She has her sights set on nothing less than gold again this week.
"My goal is to win states and the only way to do that is to get better at practice every day," Santiago said. "I think back to my freshman year and use that as motivation."
Many believe she is the favorite to win her weight class.
"She is phenomenal, just a beast out there," Kamehameha coach Brandon Shimabukuro said. "I really don't see any competition for her at this point."
Torres likes Santiago's chances, but he said with the stakes raised, anything can happen.
"She's got the best chance of anybody in her weight because she's got the best seed, but at the state tournament the competition is always tough and it's just a matter of who shows up," Torres said. "In the end, to be the champion, you have to beat everybody."
Santiago would like nothing more than to stand atop the winner's podium Saturday night.
"It would mean all the time and hard work I've put into it would be rewarded," she said. "It would mean a lot to me."
PUNAHOU, KAMEHAMEHA AMONG TITLE FAVORITES
Defending girls team champion Punahou will have some work to do if it is to repeat this year. The Buffanblu lost by 3 1/2 points to Kamehameha in last weekend's ILH championships and are one of several teams in the mix for the title.
The Warriors are the only school to qualify for each of the 11 weight classes, but have just two seeded wrestlers in senior Macy Yonamine (103 pounds) and freshman Bree Rapoza (108). Both, however, are top seeds, and Yonamine is unbeaten this year, with most of her victories sealed with a pin, Shimabukuro said.
"She's done a great job all year," Kamehameha's Shimabukuro said of Yonamine, who won a state title at 108 last year. She has cut down to 103 to accommodate Rapoza into the Warriors' lineup.
Six of Punahou's eight wrestlers earned a top-four seed, including a pair of top seeds in the Chow sisters — Chrissy (125) and Mindy (130).
OIA champion Kahuku will be represented in every weight class except 130 pounds. The Red Raiders, who won it all in 2008, are led by No. 1 seeds Santiago (140) and Amber Ah Sue (155).
"We've got the numbers, but it's about quality in states," Torres said. "Those numbers have to score points. I think it'll come down to the team that can get more girls into the second day."
Other contenders include 'Aiea and Pearl City from the OIA.