Goalie Kahala Neumann leads Kamehameha water polo into states

May 9—In their backyard pool, the Neumann ohana has countless memories.

In their backyard pool, the Neumann ohana has countless memories.

Three-year-old Kahala Neumann was often in the water, floaties on her arms as a normal precaution. One day, Kahala the toddler had enough. Swimming was fun, but she couldn't get under water with floaties on. From now on, she would be Kahala the dolphin, her favorite animal.

"We all gasped watching her do this. She said, 'Mommy, I don't need these anymore.' She ripped off the floaties and jumped in the pool, " Jennifer Neumann recalled. "She struggled a bit, but she kept kicking her little legs and dog paddling, and she made it to the side, got out and did it again."

As she grew older, Kahala Neumann never tried a sport outside the water. Not volleyball. Not softball. Not basketball. Definitely not cross country.

"I hate running, " she said.

Swimming and water polo were all Neumann cared about in athletics. When Kamehameha stunned Punahou to win the ILH championship last week, the Warriors ended Punahou's amazing run of 13 consecutive titles. Neumann was in peak form, her long arms, toughness and savvy play on full display at the net. The senior goalie had 10 saves in the 7-4 win, the latest in a long series between the rivals this spring. Kamehameha won the first two meetings, then lost twice to the Buffanblu before winning the league crown.

"After our first win, it was kind of a wake-up call that we are all very talented and we can win, too. We always had an idea in our heads that we want to beat them, but it wasn't until we actually did that when it shot into our heads that it's not just a fantasy or idea, " Neumann said.

The two losses to Punahou could have derailed the Warriors.

"Once in the regular season, then again in the ILH tournament. We took it pretty hard. I was kind of scared of how team morale would be. I thought people would be disappointed and give up, but it was the complete opposite. We were more motivated than ever, " she said. "Looking back at it, I think that's what we needed. It forced us to think of new ways to play the game. We kept reminding each other that we need to work together so we can evolve and win that ILH title."

The nuances of a state-title contender sometimes come down to elements that aren't measured by numbers.

"A lot of it is her leadership. Kahala does a good job keeping the girls calm in the pool, " Warriors coach Anthony Cabrera noted. "She works hard, blocking and passing, but she's really matured this year not just by example, which she has always done, but as a more vocal leader. We've asked her to take on more of that leadership role.

"She adds a lot of good insights. A lot of times, there's a different view she gets when she's in the pool. She can add a lot from her unique perspective that helps a lot of other girls know what's going on."

The overlap of cerebral and communication transcends X's and O's.

"During the first day of tryouts in seventh grade, I was a fish out of water, not knowing what to do, " fellow Kamehameha goalie Makana Fake said. "I vividly remember the anxiety of trying this new sport, and Kahala smiled and invited me to do the drills with her, which washed away all the nervousness of it all. Kahala is such a dependable person in and out of the water. I can always lean on her for support as my teammate and friend. She's also a hard worker who pushes me to be a better player every day."

Kamehameha opens the HHSAA Girls Water Polo State Championships as the top seed. The tourney began on Monday and resumes with the quarterfinal round on Thursday, when the Warriors will play Hawaii Prep at 7 :15 p.m. at Kamehameha's Kalaniopu 'u Swimming Pool.

Kamehameha's balanced offense gets started often enough by Neumann's defense and outlet passing. Sisters Leinaala and Laikukamahina Wong, Kohia Rego, Jordyn Nishimura and Ava Gurney are key components in a disciplined, opportunistic attack.

"I have to give credit to my team because I do not know how they play offense. I feel safe in my goal, " Neumann said. "I was always a goalie. I gauge the strength of their shots because they shoot on me at practice. I know how it feels to be hit by their ball."

Her vision and arm strength are a labor of love five years in the making. When she went out for water polo, she and her new teammates were seventh graders.

"I don't remember anything about her then. I definitely noticed when she got to high school, " Cabrera said. "She's got a pretty big wingspan, a good goalie body type. She's worked a lot on her passing, which has gotten a lot better. Just getting stronger so she can make those long-distance passes in the pool."

At 5 feet, 11 inches, Neumann fits the mold of most college goalies. She will take her 4.3 grade-point average to USC next season, where she plans to major in industrial engineering. On Sunday, she was deep into preparation for an AP Calculus test.

"I'm very excited. I found out that I liked doing math my junior year in high school. At the time, I was still trying to find something I liked, " she said. "In my precalculus class, we took it through Hawaii Pacific University and the grade went on my college transcript. It was a lot of pressure, but that class taught me that I can do anything as long as I put my mind to it. I never thought of myself as a math person."

James Neumann has always been intrigued by the personality of his oldest daughter.

"Watching her grow up, she was always kind of in her own world. However, seeing her maturity as well as the young woman she has turned out to be, she's proved that she's dedicated, hard-working and intelligent, " he said. "She's still growing, but she's eager to learn more and get better every day."

Since winning the ILH, the Warriors had a regular week of practice, then had a rare Saturday off.

"Right now, we are focusing a lot on conditioning so our endurance won't be what brings us down. Even though it sucks, conditioning is important, " Neumann said. "Our biggest thing is to focus on our mindset, to stay focused, not be too tunnel-visioned, but also to not underestimate ourselves."

The year-round training, traveling to tournaments, has added up to tangible results.

"We've tried to take off as much pressure as possible for them. We want them to go out and have fun, " Cabrera said. "This group has been playing together for a long period of time and has really worked hard to get better. They've dedicated themselves."

Neumann is ready for the state tourney, for graduation, for the next step in her journey. Her name ensures that she will always be rooted.

"I was born on Jan. 16, which is the birthday of my great-grandma Nora Olivia Ha 'o, as well, " she said. "I wasn't supposed to be born on that day, but I came early and my dad was reminded of his family and memories at Kahala Beach picking limu."