Post-tourney: Girls hoops back on the rise

by Paul Honda on February 10, 2013

Now that the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships are over, what’s left to ponder?

I like the underclass movement. Seniors like Lilia Maio left an indelible mark and legacy for schools like Kamehameha, which won its first state crown since 2002. Yes, these current Warriors were in kindergarten and first grade back then. But this year has been very much about the coming wave of talent.

The ebb and flow of players is a real thing. Overall talent has been dipping in recent years. Elite players are still elite, but the overall depth has been slipping. Until now.

Team Aloha, the conglomeration of all-star players put together by former mayor Mufi Hannemann, is a source of data to lean on.

The team in the fall of 2006 was exceptional, he said after Saturday’s Jamboree at Manoa Valley Recreation Center.

“We had the Kuehu sisters (Shawna and Shaena), Jamie Smith, Vicky Tagalicod, Keisha Kanekoa, Iwalani Rodrigues, Jazzmin Awa-Williams, Ana Viena-Lota, Nikki Fu, Courtney Gaddis, Ashley Medcalf,” he recalled.

“We went to the tournament with the understanding that if Team Aloha played the Nike team (Storm) in the final, Shawna would play with us. They came to see Shawna. They walked away talking about Vicky.”

Oh those were the days. Shawna Kuehu was a player of the year who drew comparisons to Nani Cockett as the best player in island history. Tagalicod was an incredibly tough matchup, a powerful guard too strong for defenders on the perimeter, too quick for taller posts and too crafty for anybody else. Of course, that was before the foot injury.

Kuehu has overcome a knee injury, as did her sister, Shaena, to play college basketball. It’s only fitting that Shawna and Vicky are still balling today, six seasons later, at UH-Manoa.

But that group of Hawaii hoopsters was clearly a special one.

Big Blue Planet: As Kamehameha-Hawaii captured its second-straight D-II title on Saturday, one can only imagine. In the decade or so since the neighbor-island campuses of Kamehameha Schools have opened, the success of the girls basketball program had waned. The talent of players like Kealani Kimball, originally from Molokai, or Ashley DeSilva, of the Big Island, didn’t make the way to Oahu.

As the years passed and that last state crown in 2002 under coach Clay Cockett drifted into the distant past, it took more than a decade for the Warriors to reclaim prominence. After all, if this were a pre-expansion era, the D-II tourney’s most outstanding player, Casey Poe, would have likely wound up at Kapalama.

Imagine that lineup with Poe, a long, 5-10 junior with explosiveness and guard skills.

Back to reality, Kamehameha-Kapalama coach Darold Imanaka doesn’t need any extra help. He likes what the Warriors will have next season, when eight returnees, including every starter except the senior, Maio. But he’s not assuming anything about being head coach next season.

“We’ll see what happens with the (administrative) evaluations,” he said, introducing intermediate and JV coaches to a reporter. “It’s the coaches with me that made this work. They do all the work. The credit goes to them. We’re all working together as one.”

Warrior sweep: Kamehameha-Hawaii isn’t quite the powerhouse it used to be on the Big Island in one sense — instead of drawing top-level talent from across the island, the Warriors actually lost players before the season.

They lost two transfers, including one to Honokaa, and the graduation of Chelsea Poe was a big hit. But Poe’s sister, Casey, rose to a new level with the weight of the scoring duty on her shoulders. The 5-foot-11 junior looked a whole lot like a young Rachel Kane plus Ana Viena-Lota plus a tiny bit of Nani Cockett.

Like the Pana ohana, Poe has the work ethic as well as good genes. Her father, assistant coach Shannon Poe, was a standout player back in the day, and has coached her up through the ranks.

It won’t be easy, though. Honokaa’s emergence brought a lot of smiles to fans on the Hamakua Coast. This is, after all, the same place that produced Keisha Kanekoa and Kahea Schuckert, who are both among the greatest scorers and playmakers in BIIF history. The Dragons, under Coach James Lukzen, lose two seniors (Yvonne Daniels and Keana Kaohimanu), but will return center Hunter Liftee and slashers Kizzah Maltezo and Shemika Frazier.

High praise for Hilo: Just about every coach, current or retired, asked about next season couldn’t help raving about Hilo. The entire roster is filled with underclassmen, including several freshmen who were in the rotation. Their best player, though, is junior Aliyah Pana, who was selected to the all-tournament team.

Coach Ben Pana, Aliyah’s father, was a big part of Hilo’s hoops tradition in the 1990s, a smooth 3-point shooter who could defend forever. The current Viking girls played four games in four days, never changing the pace. They finished strong against ‘Iolani, a team ranked No. 3 coming into the tourney.

Hilo, essentially, was a track team that could play very good basketball. They looked it. They played like it. And they’ll keep training and balling. Pana, the coach, has taken their Keaukaha girls team to tournaments in Las Vegas the past three summers. Younger sister Alexis Pana, a 5-9 freshman, is a big part of that Keaukaha/Hilo pipeline.

“It’s been a lot of car washes, concession stands and food sales,” Coach Pana said.

The love of basketball, in Pana’s vision, means a commitment to conditioning. It’s a way of life that paid off with a third-place finish for the Viks, who were ranked No. 10 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10 before the tourney.

“You could see (‘Iolani) slow down the ball. They made the mental mistakes we made in the first half,” Aliyah said. “There’s a lot we can learn on so we can improve for tomorrow and next year.”

Fresh princess: The freshest of the freshmen may be Chanelle Molina of Konawaena, who opened the tourney with an 18-point performance and the go-ahead assist to another frosh, Ihi Victor, in a 40-38 win over tough Mililani. Molina’s ability to take any defender off the dribble entertained fans, but her discipline, just the same with her teammates, in Coach Bobbie Awa’s patient system is just as notable.

Senior guard Hoku Liftee found Molina on backdoor cuts often in the first half as Konawaena bedazzled Kamehameha en route to a big lead.

“Chanelle is a cross between Lia (Galdeira) and Dawnyelle (Awa),” Hannemann said.

He added that this year’s Wildcats overachieved. The missing piece was a Wall.

“They really could’ve benefitted from someone like Anuhea Wall,” he said of the strong post who graduated last year.

Fair share: Imanaka is a coach of a state championship team, but he often praised his coaching staff through the season.

“For me, it’s a tribute to all my coaches at practice, always working,” he said.

The Warriors will return eight players, including four starters: tourney most outstanding player Tiare Kanoa, Alohi Robins-Hardy, Kealani Ryder and Breann Nueku.

The most poignant moment? It may have been teammates hugging Brachelle Nueku after Kamehameha’s victory over Konawaena. Nueku, sister of Breann, suffered a season-ending knee injury during the regular season. The senior still made it to every Kamehameha game, getting by on crutches.

End of a red run: Senior guard Kristle Henry’s fabulous career came to a close, but not before she sparked the Red Raiders to a third-place finish in the D-II tourney. She scored 30 points in a 51-42 win over Kailua, 21 in a 58-55 loss to Honokaa, and 24 in a 49-42 win over Hanalani in an ironman performance.

Henry is arguably the finest girls basketball player in school history.

“That four years went by pretty quick,” Red Raiders coach Sandi Nadatani-Mendez said. “We’re sad to see her go. Hopefully, this opens a new chapter for her to play college ball. She’s a very good student, an all-around student-athlete.”

Athletic director Ross Shimabukuro thought back to three decades of Kauai hoops.

“She’s up there with the very best, all around, possibly the top three,” he said.

Henry hasn’t decided on a college yet.

Royal highness: There’s always a great atmosphere when the final day of play arrives, consolation play is underway, and … an entire school shows up at the state tournament. It happened a few years back when University High’s student body walked over to the Stan Sheriff Center to watch their team play in a 9 a.m. game.

It happened on Friday morning, 11 a.m., when Hanalani met Kauai in the D-II third-place game. The students, about 300 in all, filled up much of the lower level of one side in Blaisdell Arena, bringing life to what would’ve been an otherwise quiet facility.

They got to see center Sarah Liva do more of what she does so well: score the basketball. Liva, a 6-1 junior, was an impressive passer when the inevitable double- and triple-teams came. But there’s no doubting her scoring ability.

She had 19 points in a 56-25 win over Molokai, 20 points in a 55-46 win over fourth-seeded Kalaheo, 34 points in a 73-53 loss to eventual champion Kamehameha-Hawaii, and 16 points against Kauai. Four games, ironman minutes and 89 points.

If the Royals can develop a few 3-point shooters to exploit all of these collapsing defenses, they might ascend to the final next year.

Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser

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