2013 All-Empire Girls Wrestling: Rancho Cotate’s Kuka short on experience, long on mettle

By TED SILLANPAA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Rancho Cotate senior Leilani Kuka. (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

Rancho Cotate senior Leilani Kuka. (Photo by Christopher Chung, The Press Democrat)

Sometimes the top performance of a season is the least expected and stands above the rest because of the obstacles an athlete overcame to star.

Rancho Cotate’s Leilani Kuka started wrestling as a junior, so she had the realistic dreams of the inexperienced heading into this season. While Ukiah’s sophomore sensation Harmonie Roberts is hailed as a current and future star with a growing reputation nationally, Kuka really just hoped to enjoy her senior season, ready for her big dreams to yield to grim reality.

“At the beginning of the year, my goal was to get to the state meet,” said the 154-pounder. “I never dreamed that I really would. I thought it would be impossible to get there in my second year wrestling.”

Kuka went on to battle a lingering shoulder injury and missed two weeks of the season.

“My right shoulder kept popping out of place,” the senior said. “I was hard-headed about it and kept coming back to wrestle and it kept coming out. At the end of the season, I was wrestling with injuries to my right shoulder, my right elbow and my right knee. It’s like one side of my body wasn’t working right.”

The result of wrestling with a shoulder injury?

The second-year wrestler won the North Coast Section championship at 154 pounds and earned the impossible-dream trip to the California Interscholastic Federation state meet. For overcoming injury and inexperience to shine in the postseason, Kuka is the All-Empire Girls Wrestler of the Year.

“In my first year, I was just learning the moves,” Kuka said, reflecting on the beginning of her two-year high school career. “During the summer before this season, I really got my body in shape. That made a big difference. This season everything just clicked for me. I was just really ambitious and determined to get to the section meet and, I hoped, the state meet.”

Kuka had a long history in athletics, playing soccer and football as well as being involved in kickboxing.

“I think football kind of helped me understand and learn how to push through,” she said. “Wrestling practices are really hard. In football, we had the double-day practices and I think that kind of prepared me for what I faced in wrestling.”

Kuka missed the two weeks with the shoulder injury. It didn’t go away, and neither did she. She returned to win that NCS title, needing a total of just 31 seconds to pin her first two opponents, then winning the championship by pinning Liberty’s Nicole Diaz 1 minute, 21 seconds into the match.

“Winning the NCS was pretty awesome,” Kuka said. “It blew my mind to go down with my shoulder injury and everything and win.”

Kuka lost her first two matches at 154 in the state meet, but the accomplishment becomes inspirational given the dislocated shoulder and hyperextended right knee.

“I was nervous at the state meet,” Kuka said. “It was great to compete against others who were as strong as I was and who had wrestled a lot longer. They were just as passionate about the sport as I am.”

Kuka is headed for Santa Rosa Junior College, but isn’t sure if she’ll continue to wrestle.

“I heard they might be starting a women’s wrestling team,” she said of SRJC. “If they do, I want to keep wrestling and then try to wrestle at a four-year college.”

ALL-EMPIRE TEAM

WRESTLER OF THE YEAR

Leilani Kuka, Rancho Cotate

FIRST TEAM

98: Serenity Voboril, Ukiah

103: Harmonie Roberts, Ukiah

103: Samantha Hayman, Windsor

108: Sierra Egger, Middletown

108: Shaina Dowell, Maria Carrillo

118: Karen Castellanos, Middletown

122: Angelina Caneveri, Ukiah

126: Randi McMahon, Maria Carrillo

126: Erica Mihalea, Casa Grande

138: Kenya Henderson, Ukiah

165: Jessie Flynn, Middletown

189: Vickie Espinoza, Rancho Cotate

189: Michelle Larson, Petaluma

COACH OF THE YEAR

Shane Roberts, Ukiah

Note: The All-Empire girls wrestling team is composed of the best 14 wrestlers in the area, regardless of weight division.

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