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No matter what, Adriana Daoang and Nohilani Kukonu will be state champions.

It is written in stone. A rarity as a freshman gold medalist, Daoang won the 100-pound weight class at the HHSAA Wrestling State Championships in February. Kukonu, who wrestled all season at 155 despite weighing less than 150, won her first gold medal as a sophomore.

To nobody’s surprise — nobody in the massive Moanalua wrestling program — Daoang celebrated by hugging her coaches. One of them had her beloved stash of Sour Patch Kids.

Because without her candy, “Pukey” Daoang is a mere mortal without superhuman powers.

“That sounds about right,” Daoang said on Monday, more than 10 months since earning her gold.

Daoang’s older sister, Angelina, is a wrestler at Punahou. “Twinkle” did not escape the family tradition of nicknaming children.

Their father, Ferdinand, wrestled at Damien. He christened daughter No. 2, calling her “Pookie.”

“But he spells it ‘Pukey,’ “ she said.

The spelling stuck. A few people at Moanalua call her Adriana.

“Only school people,” Daoang said, referring to teachers and administrators.

Kukonu was already entering sophomore year in the fall of 2022 when Daoang arrived. It was a crucial year of development for Kukonu, a longtime judoka. Her father, Daniel, wrestled at Moanalua, but he and Sara Kukonu never pushed the sport.

“My first-ever sport was volleyball. I was 4 years old,” Nohilani Kukonu said. “I played not even a year. I didn’t exactly have a passion for it, but at that age, who knows. Next was judo when I was probably 8 or 9.”

There was a stint with track and field in sixth grade. When Sean Sakaida offered wrestling workouts for Moanalua Middle School, Kukonu showed up. With the easing of COVID restrictions, she was one of the young wrestlers in Sakaida’s back yard.

It was a bit of nirvana for kids who had been quarantined for so long. Kukonu worked hard through judo season and stepped up in the summer of 2022. As sophomore year unfolded, the pieces came together. The day-to-day grind was as much about technique and learning as anything.

“I don’t know what my record was. Maybe five losses throughout the whole season, but I don’t know how many wins I had,” Kukonu said. “I learned about shooting. Freshman year, I did not shoot at all. I relied a lot on throwing. Upper-body stuff. In judo, it’s taboo to touch the legs. The first one is a penalty. The second is a disqualification.”

Sakaida and his posse of dedicated assistant coaches — including Kukonu’s dad — worked diligently with the masses.

“Honestly, when Nohi was training out of my back yard, she’d never wrestled in her life. Having a judo background, she mainly did judo. She’d win her matches by doing judo. She had to embrace wrestling more to become elite, to beat the best.”

In the state final, she overcame her nemesis, top-seeded Bethany Chargualaf of Campbell, 5-3. Kukonu had lost to Chargualaf twice during preseason and regular season. Kukonu finished the season 20-5.

Daoang was a sparkling 23-1 in her first year of high school. She came to Moanalua with a ton of experience as a freestyle wrestler.

“When I was younger, it wasn’t really a big deal, but as I got better, it became more of a serious sport,” she said. “When I turned 6, we went to our very first wrestling nationals. It was a three-day tournament and we did every single style.”

That was the twist for Sakaida. While Kukonu began to grasp the fundamentals of attacking, Daoang learned some of the nuances of the high school game.

“She was pretty advanced. I didn’t have to pay attention at all, but her style is mainly freestyle, so she didn’t know folkstyle like high school,” Sakaida said. “I had to work with her on the referee’s position, bottom position.”

It took time to absorb the little things. Very key little things.

“In college, it’s freestyle. Folkstyle, I’ve always known about it and I know how to wrestle it, but it’s a lot harder because I’m into the habit of doing things freestyle. A lot of the rules for folkstyle have to be drilled in my head. I’ve lost tournaments because of that,” Daoang said. “But it’s easier this year because I’ve been through one season of it.”

Sakaida knows about growth. Learning. Adaptation. He grew up in an era of hard-core coaching. Today, his teams revel in their group dancing. They revel in lifting each other up through good and tough moments. They dye their hair a marvelous shade of blue right before the state championships.

Kukonu has battled through it all. The daily ice bags after collecting more bumps and bruises at practice. The injured thumbs through freshman season. The extra drive it takes to win a state championship as a team — that comes from a place beyond hand-to-hand combat and pain.

“I think people understand how hard we work, but they might not take us seriously because we dance sometimes,” Kukonu said. “It shouldn’t be a chore or something we dread. We should be here because we want to be here. That’s important because a lot of schools, I feel bad when there’s kids who say, ‘I don’t want to wrestle.’ I grew up as a judo kid. That’s all I knew. I went out for volleyball in middle school and got cut, so I went to wrestling. It seemed like it could be a lot of fun, but that was because Coach Sean made it fun.”

How fun? Sometimes Na Menehune begin practice with good, ol’ dodgeball.

“That’s one of the things we’re known for. We play these games and keep the energy high in the room,” Kukonu said.

Another crucial ingredient for the 40 girls and 60 boys in the program: working together in the same room.

“The combined practices are so important — to build our team chemistry,” she added

Even in the horde, it is hard to miss Daoang. One of the smallest in stature, but a furnace of strength, finesse and energy on the mat. Constantly refueling.

“Before one of our tournaments, she was going through her lunch bag, which was stuffed to the brim with food. Most of it was candy, so she kept pulling out more and more junk food that she was ready to eat after weigh in,” Kukonu recalled. “Then when I thought she was done, there was more snacks stuffed into her wrestling bag, as well. I swear there was more food than anything wrestling related. She has a small stomach and gives a lot of it away. It was quite entertaining.”

It may surprise some, but Daoang eats a lot of eggs and chicken away from the mat. It’s just when she’s around the sport, she goes to what she calls her “athlete’s diet.”

“Eat candy, drink it with Sprite,” she said.

At some point, maybe years or decades from now, Daoang will slow down with the sugar intake. Or maybe never.

“There’s no way I could go one week without candy. At the state tournament, I was waiting for my match to happen. I didn’t realize it was going to take so long. I started snacking on candy,” she said.

An hour and 45 minutes later, Pukey had munched on three bags of Gummy Worms, Sour Patch Kids and Nerds Gummy Clusters. The mass glucose intake is relegated mostly to weekends.

“I eat fruit for breakfast. During the week, I try to stay healthy,” Daoang said.

Her dad doesn’t coach her, even when they get home. Ferdinand Daoang keeps himself busy cooking his family’s favorite foods. Pork adobo. Chicken katsu curry. Dinaguan.

“My mom (Aimee Daoang) is the one who picks me up from all my practices,” Daoang noted. “They leave before I can even see them in the morning. They have to work early.”

All the candy and dodgeball fun in the world can’t shield her from the obvious question: can Pukey Daoang become the next grand-slam state champion? She will talk about many things, but even at a young age, Daoang understands the mine fields involved with the topic.

“I choose not to discuss it because I just focus on right now. If I work hard, the pieces will come together. I can’t focus on what the future holds for me, but instead, focus on my present since that is what decides my future,” she said. “Grand slam is a unreal position that I could possibly attain, but for right now, my goal is a two-time state championship.”

Ferdinand Daoang saw his daughter take on boys as a 6-year-old in national tournaments. Pukey Daoang kept rising to each challenge.

“She makes us very proud on the mat and off the mat. She has the biggest heart and would give the clothes off her back to someone,” he said. “We hope she achieves what she is looking forward to in the future.”

A grand slam isn’t the only sign of potential greatness for Daoang. She cranks out a 4.0 GPA and keeps an open book of truths.

“I’m a procrastinator, I’m not going to lie. The teachers that give a lot of work, they allow a lot of late work (turned in). A lot of times, teachers offer extra credit, so I take that opportunity,” she said. “Sometimes I do homework early is early in the morning, an hour and 30 (minutes) before school starts.”

Relentless work ethic is practically inherited by Daoang, but she has already utilized a valuable tool in her rise to the top. She has wisdom.

“Leave the past where it belongs,” she said. “It’s something in my head that I’ve always tried to believe in. What already happened, you can’t change.”

Sakaida is glad his champions are not content.

“There’s still room for improvement. By no means are they finished products. Pukey’s mindset is changing now. She was more defensive and wary, still aggressive, but not as much as she could be. This year, she said she’s not going to hold back anymore,” Sakaida said. “She’s more comfortable now. She understands it more. I see it in her already.”

Some of the wrestlers went to a tournament in Las Vegas in October. Kukonu was injured at the time.

“Pukey did OK. She naturally walks around at 100 pounds so all these girls are a lot bigger, cutting 10 pounds before weigh-in,” Sakaida said.

Kukonu won state gold at 155, which allowed Moanalua to play freshman Zaire Sugui at 145. Sugui finished as runner-up at states. This summer, Kukonu cut down to 140 for mainland competition. She returned to 148 or so in the fall, then cut back to 140 for high school preseason.

“Nohi was a team player. Our freshman Zaire was really good. It worked out for everybody,” Sakaida said. “Nohi wrestled at 140 this past weekend (at Leilehua). I don’t know where I’m going to put her right now. We just have a lot of girls at that weight class. It’s awesome because no one complains.”

Kukonu, who has a 3.8 grade-point average, is pragmatic. She hopes to wrestle in college, so being adaptable will help.

“I know I’m trying to cut down for college. Those mainland girls are tall and cut down a lot,” she said. “I want to see where I can benefit my team and myself. I’m just going to trust my coaches.”

Dropping from 148-150 to 140 requires the same discipline that Kukonu applies to schoolwork.

“I never cut weight before. It wasn’t easy. I didn’t do it super well. I cleaned up my diet. In the mornings, a couple of eggs and bacon. Lunch, I had salads with chicken or some king of protein,” she said. “I don’t like dressings and condiments. Dinner, most of the time was the lightest. A fruit bowl.”

Sara Kukonu has watched father and daughter bond through the sport.

“She is honest, caring and wonderful. She is a great student and athlete because through all the challenges that come her way, she pushes through to achieve her goals,” she said. “I was most surprised by her love for the sport. She works hard and dedicated most of her time to her sport, team and coaches.”

In her father’s eyes, Nohilani Kukonu was quietly heroic long before her success in wrestling.

“She listens and helps out with her two brothers. She’s in the middle. Her older brother is autistic and she gets him ready for school, makes him breakfast, and dresses him,” Daniel Kukonu said. “Being a single dad, it helps a bunch.”


Moanalua wrestling, judo • Junior

>> Top 3 movies/shows

1. “The Umbrella Academy”

2. “Maze Runner” movies

3. “Tangled”

>> Top 3 food/snacks/drinks

1. Garlic bread (Boston North End Pizza)

2. Strawberry lemonade (California Pizza Kitchen)

3. Acai bowl (Lanikai Juice)

“I love bread, but I love garlic bread the most. Boston (North End) Pizza makes it. I go there every two weeks, but not during the season. I stop right around before preseason starts. “

>> Top 3 homemade foods

1. Mom’s spinach dip.

2. Mom’s pumpkin crunch.

3. Mom’s spaghetti.

“My mom (Sara) makes it a few times a year. She makes pumpkin crunch during the holidays. I think I can make the spinach dip, but not the pumpkin crunch. My dad (Daniel) doesn’t really cook. I haven’t seen him cook. I’ve seen him grill.”

>> Top 3 music artists

1. Taylor Swift – “Mr. Perfectly Fine”

2. SZA – “Broken Clocks”

3. Olivia Rodrigo – “Favorite Crime”

>> Favorite class: Polynesian dance.

“It’s a fun student-led class and we get to learn all the different styles. Hula, Tahitian and we’re starting to go into Samoan.”

>> Favorite teacher: Mrs. Keller. Salt Lake Elementary School, fourth grade.

“She left after my sixth grade year. Her husband was military. When I was in fourth grade that was her first year at the school. She was really relaxed and she wasn’t super strict, but she knew how to keep a class under control. She was super easy to talk to. She was really encouraging.”

>> Funniest teammate: Nahenahe Kalamau.

“She doesn’t think before she talks, so it’s always so funny, especially in a practice environment. She’s a freshman.”

>> Smartest teammate: Katlyn Fong.

“She’s smart in the sense where she always knows what to say in every situation. She’s very book smart.”

>> Favorite motto: Being an underdog means that you have nothing to lose, but you believe you can win.

“A lot of it did change because I was at the top, but new year, new season, I still think like that. I don’t consider myself an underdog anymore. I’m not unknown anymore.”

>> GPA: 3.8

>> Time machine: “I would go 100 years into the future and I would stay right here in Hawaii. If I went to the past, we have history class. It doesn’t sound exactly like a place I want to visit. There was a lot of war and bad things.”

>> Hidden talent: “When I was in middle school and freshman year, I could play the bassoon. I quit after freshman year. I like music, but I couldn’t balance band, sports and school. I had to drop one.”

>> New life skill: Coping with stress and strong emotions.

“It’s definitely through my sports. Juggling school and sports was stressful. You have to prioritize being a student before an athlete. Get the school work done, and in sports, take a deep breath and I tell myself to try my best. Whatever happens, happens.”

>> Bucket list: “Write a book. See the aurora borealis. Make pasta from scratch. Get a tattoo. See a Capybara. Have a pet cat. I’m actually allergic to them, but I still want one. We have three dogs. I love cats, too.”

>> Youth sports: “My first ever sport was volleyball. Four years old. My auntie (Mary Kay Kukonu) took me to Salt Lake District Park gym. She had me play on this team. I played not even a year, then I quit. I didn’t exactly have a passion for it. Next was judo when I was probably 8 or 9. I did track and field in the sixth grade.”

>> If you could go back in time, what would you tell you younger self?

“I would tell myself to enjoy the life you have in your younger years. Your grades don’t matter as much as you think they do. As a child, I would cry over a B, anything less than 100 percent. I was really stressed and those are the ones that don’t even matter. They matter now. I would tell myself to love my sports because you can only do them for so long. They don’t have judo in college and in wrestling, if you don’t go to the next level, that’s the end of your career. Also, to cherish your friends because you never know what could happen. I had a lot of friends move away this year.”

>> Shoutouts: “My parents. My coaches. And I got to give one to my team.”


Moanalua wrestling, judo • Sophomore

>> Top 3 movies/shows

1. “The Vampire Diaries”

2. “Tokyo Drift”

3. “Thirteen Going on Thirty”

“I’ve watched the whole (“Vampire Diaries”) series at least three times.”

>> Top 3 food/snacks/drinks

1. Sprite

2. Meat jun (Kim Chee #7 near Pearlridge)

3. Kal bi

>> Top 3 candies

1. Watermelon Sour Patch Kids

2. Swedish Fish

3. Nerds Gummy Clusters

>> Top 3 homemade foods

1. Dad’s pork adobo.

2. Dad’s chicken katsu curry.

3. Dad’s dinaguan.

“My dad (Ferdinand) makes pork adobo maybe once a month. I help to prepare it. “The inside joke about dinaguan with Filipinos is they call it chocolate meat.”

>> Top 3 music artists

1. Daniel Caesar – “Always”

2. Wave to Earth – “Seasons”

3. Steve Lacy – “Infrunami”

>> Favorite class: Freshman year math.

“It was something that was easier. I understood it a lot, so it was fun to do.”

>> Favorite teacher: Mrs. Lynn Hashizume.

“She teaches an elective, introduction to the medical field. She teaches you how it’s going to be after high school. You have to be a self-directed learner.”

>> Favorite athlete: Shohei Ohtani.

“Baseball, he’s one of my favorite players. Baseball is interesting to watch.”

>> Funniest teammate: Teme Paepule.

“She’s funny without being funny. Sometimes her common sense isn’t there.”

>> Smartest teammate: Katlyn Fong.

“She has a lot of insight in life. She knows what she wants to do.”

>> Favorite motto: Leave the past where it belongs.

“It’s something in my head that I’ve always tried to believe in. What already happened, you can’t change.”

>> GPA: 4.0

>> Time machine: “I would go to Japan around 1998. The fashion definitely was different back then. Way more stylish.”

>> Hidden talent: Drawing.

“I like to draw anime characters. I’ll draw when I’m bored in class.”

>> New life skill: Driving.

“I got my permit. I can finally drive.”

>> Bucket list: “Travel the world. I want to see lots of Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Europe, as well. I want to get a tattoo, but not until I get older and figure it out.”

>> Youth sports: “I did judo when I was 5. I still do it. I started wrestling when I was 5. My sister (Angelina) started wrestling at the same time. We did jiu-jitsu for three, four years, then we decided to focus on judo and wrestling.”

>> If you could go back in time, what would you tell you younger self?

“Focus on yourself. When I was younger, even still now, I’m so worried about other people’s opinions. But I have to do stuff for myself and not other people.”

>> Shoututs

“My sister. My coaches. My teammates and my family.”

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