There is no closet space for excuses, but there is a prayer closet for the devoted.
All the years that Kahuku had enough talent and schematics and willpower to capture a boys basketball state championship — three seasons of reaching the finals, to be exact — those elements were not quite enough. Three times, Kahuku fell at the hands of private-school programs with esteemed history and tradition.
2017 was different. The returning slate under second-year head coach Brandyn Akana was formidable enough. Laie-raised standout Samuta Avea was back from a one-year sojourn to Bingham (Utah), where he helped that program capture a state championship. He was back to his hometown, a place he tearfully left in 2015 after a bittersweet sophomore season under then-head coach Alan Akina.
The arrival of two imports sealed one of the most impressive rosters in Hawaii hoops history. After years of speculation within the local basketball community, the son of former Kamehameha great Kahi Villa was heading home. With Jessiya Villa, born and raised on Oahu until moving with his family to Virginia, back home, it was just a matter of where. The logical fit: playing for his uncle, Brandyn Akana, at Kahuku. Avea was a known quantity, a tall, rangy and explosive natural on the basketball court who could outrebounded the biggest centers in youth leagues, and then go coast-to-coast, gliding and striding faster than the quickest little guards for layups. Now, at 6-foot-6, springy and unstoppable, throwing down one-handed alley-open passes above the rim at will.
Villa? Barely anyone in the islands knew what he could, and he did perhaps more than any point guard in recent memory since Miah Ostrowski of Punahou.
Then came Dan Fotu, younger brother of former UH player Isaac Fotu. Growing in Auckland, New Zealand, Fotu was playing with the junior national team at a tournament in Fiji before boarding a flight to Hawaii. His first practice was on the Monday before the ‘Iolani Classic, where he came off the bench and still was a significant contributor as the Red Raiders won three of four games against mainland powerhouses and finished third in the tourney.
Between Avea, the 6-7 Fotu and Villa, there was a natural chemistry that took very little time to turn into results. Defensively, with guards Codie Sauvao and Kesi Ah-Hoy, and forward Taimona Wright (6-4), Kahuku had one of the finest defensive teams in years.
But it almost wasn’t to be. Avea suffered a dislocated ankle during the summer, and it took immense rehab to get back to form by preseason. He was still in some pain and clearly not his old self at that point in an early preseason loss at St. Francis. Avea never stopped, however, saying that if he could do nothing more than rebound and play defense, so be it. Two months later, he was selected the all-tournament most outstanding player at the state championships.
If Avea was the most outstanding player, Villa may well have been the most valuable, but he, too, had to overcome adversity. His injury problems were almost unsurmountable, in hindsight. During a preseason matchup with Punahou, the Buffanblu left Kahuku’s gym with a 67-57 victory. The bigger loss, however, could have been a dislocated collarbone suffered by Villa that wasn’t disclosed until after the state tournament.
“It was a tough year for him. No one knew he played with a dislocation in his collarbone,” his father, Kahi Villa, wrote in a text. “We didn’t let it out because we didn’t want the teams to use it to their advantage. The trainers at Kahuku worked so hard to keep him healthy, then when he suffered the concussion, they had double duty trying to get him back 100 percent.”
Against Kailua in the OIA semifinals, however, Villa was suddenly sidelined by a concussion suffered the week before at practice, the very place where Akana and his team took great pride in simulating and exceeding normal workouts at hyper-intensity levels. Akana said Villa was cleared to play, but opted to sit him out for one more game. Kahuku escaped with a comeback 42-40 win over Kailua. A state berth wasn’t at risk that night, but it was a vivid window into what life without their skilled point guard would and could be like.
“To me, the fact that he was able to do what he did, at his height, with the injury to the shooting side collarbone, was crazy,” Kahi Villa wrote. “So many talked about his bad free-throw shooting percentage, but not knowing the issues that he was going through. He just brushed off all that negativity.”
Eight days later, the Red Raiders had both an OIA championship and a first-ever state crown. The state final was textbook: 23 points and seven boards, three assists and just two turnovers by Villa in 32 minutes; 20 points, 11 rebounds — six on the offensive glass — with 6-for-6 shooting at the free-throw line, four blocks and just one turnover by Avea; 14 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one block by Fotu; Ah-Hoy and Sauvao limiting Punahou’s key scorers, Chris Kobayashi and Zayne Chong, to a combined 23 points on 9-for-27 shooting.
Kahuku’s bench played just eight minutes, an unusually low number, but it was efficient. Reserve guard Kekaula Kaniho had six big points in the third quarter as Kahuku kept momentum rolling. They played their game, hot and fast from the start, controlled and aggressive in halfcourt, shot 48 percent from the field (22-for-46), 22-for-33 from the foul line (67 percent), committed just eight turnovers and outrebounded Punahou 37-28.
Beyond this, there was unexpected precision from Ah-Hoy, who nailed three treys in the first quarter and scored 17 points in an 87-45 quarterfinal win over Kalaheo. There was the overtime highlight reel against ‘Iolani by Fotu, who sat most of regulation with foul trouble, then scored the first six points of extra play as Kahuku eked out a 51-48 victory in the semifinals. It was, more than likely, the most epic game of the tournament, a clash between two elite posts in ‘Iolani’s Hugh Hogland and Fotu.
Without much doubt, the 2016-17 Kahuku team ranks among the best in state history on both sides of the court. Punahou ranks among the best runner-ups as well, a team that earned its way with clutch victories from preseason through the regular season and into the ILH tiebreakers and playoffs.
In the end, only two questions remained: Will Fotu return to Auckland and back to Kahuku for senior year? And will Akana, the former college assistant coach who was basically ostracized, then made the most of a second chance in Red Raider nation, be back for a third season as head coach?
Neither could answer yes, and neither could answer no. The only question that mattered to Kahuku fans is, who won the boys basketball championship in 2017? The answer is in their grasp now, shared by coaches and players with absolute devotion to each other.