Keonilei Akana entered high school with high hopes and big dreams. Even after two brain tumors over her Kamehameha career, the same can still be said about college as the volleyball star made her departure from the North Shore to the University of Nebraska on Sunday.
Akana’s list of accomplishments during her prep career at Kamehameha includes a senior season that saw her win her second HHSAA title, along with becoming the consensus state Player of the Year in 2019.
For a player like Akana that made the game look easy during her time in a Warriors jersey, most of the time it was anything but. Between brain surgeries, radiation treatments and pure fatigue, the journey was often grueling. Through it all, Akana gained perspective and carries wisdom that not many teenagers possess.
“Something that I learned was to never take things for granted in life and to set goals that you have been dreaming of. Just have big dreams,” she said. “Someone that really stood out and helped me with that was my older sister, (Braelyn). She really helped me because she sees the positive in everything. Just being around her and surrounding myself with her and my family, it really helped me recover while I was going through all this twice, it was really hard for me.
“After everything happened and me being able to go back on the court, it was really important for me to surround myself with positive people and always remember that dreaming big is so important.”
Akana spent the summer of 2016 travelling the country with her club volleyball team. Upon her return, she started preparing for Kamehameha’s varsity tryouts and the accompanying mile and a half run with Braelyn, who now plays for the University of Hawaii.
Following their run, Keonilei and Braelyn went inside a gym where their parents were watching a basketball game. As Keonilei and Braelyn talked, something didn’t feel right to Keonilei. She became disoriented and had a hard time deciphering what Braelyn was saying. A few moments later, she blacked out and fell down the stairs.
The impact of the fall caused a seizure, and Keonilei woke up in the hospital the next day. It was there that a tumor on the left side of her brain was discovered.
Keonilei comes from a family of athletes. Her mother, Joselyn, was a star for the UH women’s team in the 1990’s. Her father, Brandyn, was a basketball standout at BYU-Hawaii, also in the 1990’s, before a stint on the Hawaii men’s basketball coaching staff from 2010 to 2014. Also a member of the family is Tausili Akana, a linebacker at Kamehameha who is entering his sophomore season with scholarship offers from Utah, Hawaii and BYU.
Despite Keonilei’s athletic prowess and desire to compete, she says her mother saw it fit that she be a manager for the team her freshman season instead of a player. Joselyn’s apprehension was understandable, but Keonilei still wanted to play. It’s a desire that her coach, Chris Blake, was supportive of.
“Like every mom, just concerned and worried. Coach Chris, he thought volleyball should be a part of my recovery because he knew how important volleyball was to me. I’ll always remember how he treated me like he knew that I could do it, which was very motivational to me, too,” Keonilei recalls. “It helped me figure out that I could do it also and I just had to believe it, and so having him there for me was important. Something I’ll remember is the night before my first surgery, there was a Kamehameha varsity tournament and it was a part of our tryouts going into freshman year. He let me play because he felt that it was important for me to go into my surgery with a positive thought, which is volleyball.”
To Blake, the decision to let Keonilei play was carefully considered through discussions with her parents. Ultimately, Keonilei saw the court.
“For Keonilei, when posed with a challenge, oftentimes people have a choice to either rise or fall. She made that choice to rise and it was a great foundational piece for her in taking that next step,” Blake says. “We made sure that we took our time and when everything was right, we were able to make the proper assessments and her health was always first and foremost in all our decisions.”
Two years later in 2018, Keonilei again had trouble thinking and felt off. She was still attending regular checkups, but after another visit to the hospital, the tumor had grown back. It was time for another surgery.
“The second time, I was at school and I was having a hard time thinking and everything. I ended up going to the hospital and they checked and it grew back,” she said. “The second time, the doctors recommended that I go through radiation for six weeks just so it wouldn’t grow back and everything like that. Going through that was even harder because of course going through radiation or going through treatment like that, of course the first thing that comes to mind is losing hair, which is something that was concerning for me also.
“Going through that, it was really hard for me but I learned a lot from that also. The second time, it was during club ball going into the summer. I didn’t really share or tell others about it because I didn’t want attention on it or attention on me or anything.”
Keonilei’s perseverance and adoration for volleyball has never wavered. In both 2016 and 2018, she painstakingly worked her way back to the court in the midst of doctor’s appointments, radiation treatments, blood tests and MRI scans. She was propelled by her genuine love for volleyball, a sport she’s taken refuge in her whole life.
“The second time, I think with the recurrence of it, there was a big question whether or not she would be able to do any sports, let alone volleyball or even just her normal life,” Blake said. “She attacked those kinds of challenges head-on and she did everything she was supposed to be doing. Once the operation was successful and there was chemo and things, we would always check in with her and make sure she was alright and I think those are the little things that go into many of our great athletes coming out of Hawaii. They do those extra things so they can make sure that they’re ready to go.”
Keonilei has worn a headband on the court since she was 12 years old. Back then, it was by choice and a colorful on-court accessory. Since her freshman year, it became a way for her to cover up scars and hair loss from surgery and radiation. She says she’ll continue to wear a headband at Nebraska and any other team she’ll suit up for in the future. She continues to have checkups and says everything is fine at the moment.
As she enters her freshman season at Nebraska, Keonilei is optimistic despite the on-court uncertainty surrounding her situation. She originally signed with USC in November, but decommitted and was granted a release in March due to a coaching change. She was unable to check out Nebraska’s campus in person due to the coronavirus pandemic and instead took a virtual visit. She committed and signed with the Cornhuskers in April sight unseen.
Akana will play both sand and indoor volleyball for the Cornhuskers. Although she was primarily an outside hitter and opposite for Kamehameha, she’ll start off as a defensive specialist and libero for Nebraska.
“They are getting a very talented hard worker. Because she’s grown up around volleyball, she has a high volleyball IQ,” Blake said. “But she’s willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that she gets better and she makes her team better. The last Hawaii player there was Fiona Nepo, now Fiona Fonoti. It was in the 90’s and while Fiona was there, she was a setter and she helped lead their team to a national championship. Talking to coach (John) Cook, talking to coach (Jaylen) Reyes, they definitely want that kind of attitude and the brand of volleyball we play in Hawaii to be a part of their gym.
“I know she’ll do whatever it takes to make sure to not only push them, but hopefully she’ll be able to contribute to her team’s success in any way possible.”
Akana says she’s excited to acclimate herself to college life and meet her new teammates and coaches in person. After all, she’ll be in Lincoln playing the sport she loves.
“If someone were to tell me that my freshman year (of high school), I think going through all this definitely working hard was something that was important for me,” Akana said. “Going through two times, having to come back and recover both times was hard and it was when I got to go back to school and I was feeling great after both surgeries but it was hard for me because I was so used to playing volleyball every day and just playing the sport all the time.
“Going through the surgeries and going through the tumor, it was hard for me physically and also mentally. Me just staying motivated through all of this, it helped me to get to where I am now definitely. Just doing my best and always giving my one thousand percent while on the court was important.”