Always a good time for Sweet 16

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It is 2013. We basketball fans are one year removed from the Lia Galdeira/Dawnyelle Awa empire (three state titles in four years). We are three years removed from Lahainaluna’s first state crown and megatronic guard Maiki Viela. Oh, and we’re quite a number of years removed from the dynastic peaks of Punahou basketball with twins Shawna and Shaena Kuehu.

Let’s face it. It was a run of epic proportions for girls basketball in the islands. Sprinkle in ethereal players like Iwalani Rodrigues and blue-collar ballers like Jamie Smith, and the list could really go on and on. I bring up the past not just because the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA state championships tip off this afternoon at 5 p.m. I just can’t help reminiscing. And in recent years, I can’t help but notice the dropoff in overall depth and skill level.

Oh, the players at the top of the food chain are still magnificent. But a lot of teams are lacking depth as we enter this sacred week of roundball. That’s not necessarily bad for public viewing. There’s fun to be had when coaches can’t really trust their seventh and eighth players. But by day 2, they have to reach down deep and cross their fingers. Is my eighth man with us today mentally? Will she hustle her tail off? Or is she going to be traumatized by the enormity of the situation?

It’s high school basketball. Anything can happen.

That’s what makes this field intriguing. Everybody is really beatable. There’s no Awa/Galdeira, which means as good as Konawaena is, it isn’t quite as intimidating a force. I probably won’t see pre-teen kids rushing up to the Wildcats — as I did last year, the year before that and the year before that — tournament programs and Sharpies in hand, asking for autographs from Galdeira and Awa.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe freshman Chanelle Molina really is the real deal. Maybe seniors Courtney Kaupu and Hoku Liftee have carried the torch high and proud. Maybe this won’t be a repeat of Mana Hopkins’ senior year, when the graduation of all those cerebral, fluid Stingrays (Jessica Hanato, Jazzmin Awa-Williams, Nancy Hoist, etc.) left the cupboard almost empty. With a roster of just eight players that year, Konawaena lost in the quarterfinals.

This year, Konawaena, the top seed, has the tougher road to the final than No. 2 seed Kamehameha. That’s not just my opinion, but that of several coaches and fans I’ve listened to. There will always be quirks in a 12-team format that has half its field from one league (OIA). The more common glitch is OIA 3 and OIA 4. In boys and girls basketball, and even baseball, the OIA’s fourth-place team gets a slightly easier draw than the third-place team.

Case in point: OIA 3 Kaimuki plays ILH 2 ‘Iolani in the opening round today. That’s ‘Iolani, the perennial state title contender. ‘Iolani, the team ranked No. 3 in the Star-Advertiser Girls Basketball Top 10. Meanwhile, OIA 4 Waianae, which lost to Kaimuki by 21 points on Friday, will play MIL 2 Maui. I can’t remember the last time Maui’s girls won a state-tourney game. Maui is unranked, as is Waianae.

So it seems like Kaimuki would’ve been better off losing that OIA third-place game. Chico Furtado brought up this issue many years ago while he was still coaching at Kalaheo. The HHSAA has its recipe, its formula, in place, and the committee tries its best to adhere to the blueprint. But it still doesn’t shake out nicely every year simply because of a few different factors.

1) The aforementioned 12-team field, rather than an 8-team or 16-team setup, lends itself to problems. So why not expand to 16 teams, skip the opening-round byes and let the chips fall, right? I’ve asked before, and one official from the OIA told me several years ago that it wouldn’t make sense for the OIA to send eight teams to the Division I tournament. After all, the OIA has 14 squads in D-I (Red Conference).

That seems like a reasonable answer. Except for this: The OIA already allows almost every team into its playoff format. Twelve of its 14 D-I teams qualify for the playoffs and a lottery-level shot at a state berth. Why does the lottery mentality end with the final playoff game? Inconsistent? Yes.

On top of that, the OIA stubbornly refuses to reward its regular-season champions with automatic state berths. I was told years ago that it wasn’t worth it. That the regular season didn’t have enough games. Well, they play 10 games before the playoffs now, absolutely comparable to the ILH, MIL and BIIF. The ILH? They’ve given their regular-season champion an automatic berth for decades now.

The BIIF used to do it all the time. All those hundreds of miles logged in the regular season matter. If you’re a coach or player getting home at midnight after a weeknight game on the other side of the island, that regular-season matchup damn well better mean something more than seeding. And yet, the BIIF doesn’t go that route anymore, partly due to economics. They went back to regional divisions, and that is chock full of mismatches, particularly for Konawaena on the west side of the Big Island. It’s a very unique, complex situation. A truly good team with a good regular-season record could get upset in the playoffs and watch all its work disappear in one bad night.

The only consolation for the OIA and its system is that with six state berths, an unbeaten team that loses in the playoffs like Roosevelt has the “back door” and an opportunity to still qualify for states. But in years past, there was no back door. Teams like Moanalua’s girls ran the table in the regular season, lost in a playoff game and was done. Pau. Season over. Merciless, indeed.

I bring a few of these issues up only because of this: the air bubbles in this bloodstream aren’t contained to one limb of the body. It is systemic. The lottery mentality teaches teams and kids that it’s all about that one big night, not the hard work of the previous two months. That’s a lesson that hardly deserves to be taught in any educational system. But there it is. Hit the jackpot and a 1-11 team could conceivably reach the state tourney while an 11-1 team could sit at home.

The MIL rewards its regular-season champs. That league has probably been the best, if not second-best, at defining and rewarding its best regular-season teams over the long haul. (Even the football side has the first-round winner play the second-round winner, but that’s another topic for another time.)

2) Historical bent. For ages, the HHSAA seeding committee has leaned on past results in the state tourney as, it appears, the top criteria for seeding. Example: when Konawaena ascended as a statewide powerhouse, it rarely got the No. 1 seed ahead of Punahou, a program that already had been established as a dynasty. Even in years when Konawaena was dominant against Oahu’s elite programs in preseason, the Wildcats didn’t get the top seed. That began to change after Konawaena won a couple of state titles.

Now, with five state championship trophies, Konawaena gets the benefit of the doubt, and there certainly IS doubt this year, about its dominance. The ‘Cats weren’t invited to the ‘Iolani Classic for the first time in a few years and didn’t play on Oahu at all. Kamehameha is unbeaten through preseason and the ILH’s treacherous slate. An optimist might say Konawaena earned this No. 1 seed and mention that even that early-season home loss to Mililani was an aberration since three starters didn’t play.

A skeptic might point to Kamehameha’s lighter load. The Warriors play the Maui-Waianae winner in the quarterfinal round (Wednesday). Konawaena will face the Mililani-Kaiser winner. Mililani has been ranked all year and had been unbeaten in OIA play until the league final, where it lost to Leilehua in overtime.

No question Kamehameha has the easier draw. I know nothing is guaranteed with sports, especially with high school athletes. But historical factors always play into the HHSAA’s line of reasoning, much more than current, present results. I hardly think anyone at Kamehameha is complaining publicly about the seeding after seeing the pairings.

And, for the record, Kamehameha and Konawaena are tied at No. 1 in today’s Star-Advertiser Top 10. Eleven first-place votes apiece. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that happen. I can’t recall. That might make an epic battle in the final. Might.

3) This is off the grid, so to speak, but bear with me. I was in Kona working at the newspaper there in 1990 when the previous sports editor, Bobby Command, penned a column about 16-team state tournaments and quadrants. Bobby noted that a quadrant format, or pods, would be popular. The regional feel would truly represent what a state tournament could be about. It was a great read. Two pods on Oahu (hosted by the ILH champ and the OIA champ, not necessarily at their home gyms), two pods on the neighbor islands.

Hilo or Kona as a host site for the first two rounds would be quite a draw. Basketball is traditional, generational and big in Hilo, and Konawaena can pack the house for big games. My guess: a state tournament game in Kona would draw 1,500 on the first night and probably 2,500 on the second night. Those are conservative guesses. The max would be more like 2,000 on opening night and 3,000-plus on the second night (quarterfinal).

I’m not kidding about the numbers. When Konawaena’s boys were riding the crest in the 1990s, Ellison Onizuka Gym was filled to the gills. Attendance was well over 3,000 and sometimes close to 4,000. Back then, there was no Kealakehe, so Konawaena was the main entertainment ticket in town. The current Konawaena girls basketball team is beyond that with its five state titles and celebrity status and once-a-year pink uniforms (breast cancer awareness).

A pod on Maui is anybody’s guess. I know Baldwin is a good draw and always has been. I remember playing there, our Kaimuki team up against J.J. Vroom and the Bears, and the gym was almost packed. We lost in overtime, 39-35, and the story was on the front page of the Maui News the next morning with a gigantic photo of my teammate Vincent Ho-Ching swatting a Baldwin shooter.

My guess? Lahainaluna’s fans would make it a standing-room only scenario at the civic center. Two nights of 3,000-plus. Let’s say Lahainaluna AND Konawaena draw 5,000 each for those first two rounds, a lowball number, but stick with me. Of the 5,000 at Lahainaluna (or Konawaena), one-third are students and the rest are adults. That’s roughly 3,333 adult ticket sales (3,333 x $9) plus 1,667 student ticket sales (1,667 x $5). (Note: I’m not sure what they’re charging for adults and students at the state tourney, but $9 and $5 sound about right for multiple games/doubleheaders/etc.)

The math: $29,997 in adult ticket sales and $8,335 in student ticket sales. The total: $38,332. That doesn’t include concession stand food sales or souvenir items (T-shirts). Home gym keeps concessions. Ticket revenue goes to the HHSAA.

You may believe this is ridiculously overly optimistic. But what if they draw, instead of 2,500 fans per night, they get 3,000 fans? That’s over the top, but possible in places like Lahainaluna, which will also draw fans from Kahului, Kihei, Wailuku, Upcountry. People who normally don’t venture to the west side more than once or twice a season.

Same with Konawaena, which would draw basketball watchers from all over the island.
Even if I lowball it and project just 1,500 fans per night, that’s 3,000 fans for two nights.
2,000 adult tickets = $18,000, 1,000 student tickets = $5,000. The total on the low-end projection would be $23,000.

Can a state tournament in quadrant/pod format survive? Can $23,000 allow Oahu teams to travel and reside comfortably for two days on Maui or the Big Island?

Stop the vinyl record here, please.

This is where I always see debate between athletic directors from Oahu versus those on the neighbor islands. Oahu folks are supremely spoiled, and being born and raised in Honolulu, I know it. State tournaments are normally on Oahu, though in the past decade or so (probably longer), sites have rotated to the neighbor islands for sports like golf, track and field, tennis, cross country.

Basketball? Nada.

There’s a lot of flak from Oahu ADs when neighbor island ADs push for rotations in various sports. Up to this point, neighbor island teams are paying the full cost of traveling to Oahu with the exception of football. One coach asked me in the mid-aughts, why do we have to fundraise tens of thousands of dollars, playing huge money for airline fares, when Hawaiian Airlines is the sponsor.

He made a good point. That’s when I learned that the title sponsor of any state tournament isn’t sponsoring that sport. The sponsor donates to the HHSAA, and a decision is later made about whose name is attached to a certain sport’s state tournament “title.” In other words, Hawaiian Airlines’ sponsorship money is spread out and the HHSAA manages it just like all the other sponsors’ money to make the tons of state tournaments function properly.

But, back to my point. The lowball $23,000. Can it really cover costs for three traveling teams (BIIF, ILH, OIA) to a quadrant?

Let’s break down travel costs.

• Air fare. Let’s say Hawaiian Airlines helps out a bit, not with free tickets (that would be fantastical), but with affordable costs. A good rate for a fairly late request (the week before the state tourney) might be $119 per person, one way. Or $238 round trip. Average of 12 players per team, then add on three coaches, one manager. (I know that’s minimizing, but stay with me.) Air fare cost: $2,856.

• Ground transportation. Two vans, two days, probably $300 minimum. Not bad.

• Hotel: This is the one that bites hard. Two people per room, minimum eight rooms. Rate: $125 per room. Two-night stay. The total: $2,000.

• Food: This is the rub. You pay for your own food. Teams will fundraise in the offseason and there should be enough in the kitty to cover this. (There better be.)

Grand total for one team’s two-night stay off-island: $5,156.

Multiply that by three traveling teams (at one quadrant) and the total cost is $15,468.

That’s far less than the lowball revenue total of $23,000. The HHSAA could conceivably have more than $7,000 left over.

Can this be done? Yes.

Does anyone want to deal with the logistics? Not really.

Well, the BIIF and MIL would love it. So would the HHSAA, which has been progressive and innovative at the top (Keith Amemiya, and now Christopher Chun) for more than a decade. But the HHSAA — Chun — doesn’t make any decision about state tournaments autonomously.

Any proposal like this at the annual HIADA (athletic directors) conference would require passage by vote, and the OIA and ILH are brothers/sisters in arms when it comes to voting strategy. Just check the record on MIL and BIIF proposals to expand the state football tournament. Even though an eight-team field (rather than six) would possibly open the door for one more ILH and one more OIA team, the two leagues have steadfastly voted against every one of these ideas. Together, they outnumber the MIL, BIIF and KIF. The cold war against neighbor island proposals continues and continues. Goodwill to all be darned.

I’m not keen on crunching numbers ever unless it has to do with high school sports statistics. I still love my football spreadsheets and I could go on for a long, long time backtracking individual numbers of legendary players. But when the math is computed for 16-team fields and pods on neighbor islands, it’s indisputable. Is the math wrong? Is there something missing?

Probably. But if this helps the discussion linger on, good. Bobby’s been scribing and talking about 16 teams and quadrants for more than two decades.

At the gyms you drive to on Oahu these next two days, tell me what the attendance was. Chances are they’ll be nowhere near half-filled. If anything, opening-round games on Oahu are normally, horrendously light in attendance numbers. But the lone plus factor in the equation is that using high school gyms, as opposed to Blaisdell Arena or even Stan Sheriff Center in years past, is free of cost.

The expense absorbed by neighbor island teams traveling to Oahu is never chiseled into the equation. It’s always been a given, an afterthought, if anything. But as a couple hundred fans watch some of these early-round games, think about it. Would it be so bad for the ILH’s second-place team or the OIA’s third-place team to travel to Lahaina or Kona to play in THE event of the week there before a massive crowd (by Oahu standards) in an incredibly electric atmosphere for two nights?

In girls basketball, with Lahainaluna and Konawaena as leading examples of what the game can do to revitalize communities, for me it’s not even a question of if. It should be a matter of when.

Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser


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