Ilagan: Generation of Governor greats

Tennis is a family affair for the Ilagans.  Krystle Marcellus / Star-Advertiser, 2015
Tennis is a family affair for the Ilagans. Krystle Marcellus / Star-Advertiser, 2015

Even the most casual tennis fan may have gathered this about Andre Ilagan, Farrington’s sophomore sensation on the tennis court: He’s a fairly quiet guy surrounded by folks who love to talk about him.

As much as his coaches and dad, Sergio, had to say about the 3.5-grade point average student-athlete, it was impossible to fit all of their thoughts into one feature story. So here’s more.

From scratch to title town
Sergio has been a local cornerstone, a font of knowledge imparting wisdom on the ewa court at Kalakaua Middle School for more than two decades. Yes, he knew nothing about the sport when he was 32, but what he gained through an Andre Agassi VHS tape and years of observation and teaching is unique and, clearly, highly effective. His sons Anthony, Mark and, now, Andre, have won a combined six OIA championships.

“I quit playing tennis to focus on teaching and coaching,” Sergio said. “Same with folks at Kalakaua; I teach (tennis to) a a lot of them. About 20 years ago, I came from the Philippines and work, work, work. Three jobs. My oldest one (Anthony) complains, ‘You don’t have time for me!’ I think about it. Even though I don’t have money, when I see them on the court, Oh my God. I cannot explain.”

Andre’s work ethic matched that of his father and older brothers, and then some.

“He would be there every day with his brothers, worked harder than the two brothers. No complain about anything. Asking me when are we going to the court,” Sergio recalled. “He works hard and has good discipline, but he’s very humble. He get talent, this boy. He listens to me, listens to his mom. He’s built up confidence now.”

•••••

Andre and Andre
Ilagan wasn’t even born yet when his namesake, Agassi, ruled the world of men’s tennis. But from him came a similar passion for the game. And what Agassi has accomplished in life after tennis, starting and running an academy in his hometown of Las Vegas, is rare.

Ilagan already knows what he’ll say if and when he finally gets to meet Agassi someday: “I want to be just like you.”

If it’s one thing both Andres know, it’s the value of education. Ilagan practices with his Governor teammates and co-coaches Jerry and Vailima Watson from 3 to 5 p.m. Then comes school homework right there at the court.

“I stay at Kalakaua. I do my homework and Anthony gets there 7:30 sometimes. We play until he gets tired,” Ilagan said. “He can still beat me. He’s 34.”

Oh. Andre carries a 3.5 grade-point average.

•••••

Kokua power
The Watsons have been involved with Kalihi youth for more than two decades. Vailima is part of the Kokua Kalihi Valley program, churning out activities for youth that go beyond sports. Tennis is a foundational pillar to build from, and once they get to Farrington, everything they’ve grown to value extends to the tennis program.

“Ninety percent of the kids in our program have gone to college,” Vailima said, completely beaming with mother-hen pride. “Seven of them are graduating with honors.”

Among the scholars is A.J. Alcover, who has a 4.4 GPA and will attend Brown University on a full academic scholarship.

“He wants to go into medicine,” she said.

Andre Ilagan, though, was not part of KKV. He was in a cocoon of sorts at Kalakaua’s courts.

“He requires very little coaching,” Jerry Watson said. “He’s the perfect student to have. He listens. He’s so knowledgeable. It’s mostly, is he comfortable, how does he feel, what’s he thinking about? There’s no skill instruction at all. He’s one in a thousand. He comes with so much skill and maturity, which can be attributed to his dad, playing since 4 years of age. His older brothers were champions and he’s been exposed to them his whole life.”

Watson may not have seen a better parent-child chemistry.

“His father and he have a relationship around tennis that’s successful and beyond any other parent-student. It’s a natural relationship, very comfortable and he’s self-motivated. They’re extraordinarily interesting,” Jerry said.

•••••

Sky’s the limit
Getting better has always been a goal, but Ilagan may stretch his wings more and more soon.

“All the really good junior players in Hawaii, it’s difficult for them to evolve because there’s not a broad range of exposure and competition,” Jerry Watson noted. “It’s not uncommon for kids to go to the mainland in the summer to get the benefit. He wants to do that.”

Watson and Watson have persevered for decades, seeing some players come to the Governors program without any playing experience. Ilagan could be a game changer for a community that isn’t well known for its tennis talent. Yet.

“He could be responsible for 50 or 60 kids starting to play tennis,” Jerry Watson said. “A good, close family can succeed at anything, no matter what, no matter where they live. The Ilagans are a just a model, hard-working family.”

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