CLOSING THE BOOK: Kelly Grant reflects on Maryknoll’s second-straight state title

The Maryknoll Spartans celebrated after winning the State Championship title 46-33 over the Kamehameha Warriors. Cindy Ellen Russell / Star-Advertiser

Closing the Book: No. 1 Maryknoll (31-4, 10-2 ILH)
> vs. Top 10: 21-4 (.840)
> Top 10 losses: St. Francis (CA), KS, KS, KS
> Non-Top 10 losses: None
> Home: 10-1
> Away: 6-2
> Neutral: 15-1

Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they tell us this: Maryknoll had a historic season.

Despite the graduation of four starters, the Spartans won a second state championship in a row. Up close, fans saw a team go from full throttle to a slowdown pace, all the better to maximize the defensive prowess of 7-foot Sage Tolentino, and savvy seniors Niko Robben and Liko Soares.

The patient approach, with fewer possessions, also lightened any pressure on Coach Kelly Grant’s young contributors. Underclassmen dominated the roster, but Grant’s application meant that they had to play with poise and precision. Otherwise, it was always next man up.

Robben was voted No. 2 in the Star-Advertiser All-State Fab 15 voting by coaches and media. His 12-ppg average belied his value to a team that embraced the grit-and-grind style. He was often Maryknoll’s leading rebounder and lockdown defender. At 6 feet, 4 inches, he added strength via the weight room, as did Tolentino. Robben expects to attend college on the East Coast, probably in Massachusetts.

“The last title was really special to our school and our program because it was our first one in about 30 years,” Robben said. “To go back-to-back after losing five seniors, and four starting seniors, just shows how good coaching and good effort off the court, hitting the weight room can really pay off.”

Tolentino, a sophomore was voted No. 1 on the All-Defensive Team and fourth overall in All-State Fab 15. His strength increased dramatically in the span of just one year. He began freshman year at 165 pounds, and is now 190. His skills allow him to be a legitimate 3-point threat, but it was his defense that made the difference for the Spartans.

Soares was voted No. 5 in the Fab 15, playing through a meniscus injury during the state tournament. He was 7-for-7 from the field, scoring 16 points in the championship game against Kamehameha. He plans to move to Washington state after graduation.

Maryknoll went 21-4 against Top 10 squads. That included a narrow 49-41 overtime win over Kalaheo in the opening round of the state tourney. In an era of pace and space, the Spartans were highly selective about managing risk. An entire team brought in, and there is more to come. The Spartans were voted as the top team in the 2020-21 preseason poll.

The defensive play of senior Reggie Eiland was on display all season long, but never more prominent than in the state tournament. Returnees who logged vital minutes include Noah Furtado — who was on the All-Defense selections with Eiland — Parker Grant, Kawaheo McGee, Irvin Lin and Logan Dias.

Grant was voted coach of the year, edging Kohala’s Kihei Kapeliela and Kamehameha’s Larry Park.

“I feel relieved. I had some expectations of the team, not a whole lot,” Grant said.

Grant chatted about the season and the future.

This season was ________.
> Commitment.

This season was the movie ________.
> Invincible.

Niko Robben
Grant: “Four years of consistency. He’s pretty much a coach on the floor. He’s taken on the first option, whereas last year it was between Makoto (Kamata) and Marcus (Tobin). His job was to take care of the ball. We had under 10 (turnovers per game). This past summer, I had a chance to see our team in different matchups and combinations. We’re not as long as last year.”

Liko Soares
Grant: “That week of the state tournament, he was a warrior. He was amazing. He could barely walk in school. He took care of himself and went to get some treatment. He played like no other. He was hitting shots. He knew he could shoot. When we shoot our shooting drills, he goes out to the 3-point line and he was hitting shots consistently. When he was younger playing for the Sharks, he was playing point guard. He can handle the ball and shoot the 3, but he was our post man the past couple of years. I had several guys come up to me when we were in California playing in the Damien tournament, saying if he was 6-6 he would get a Division I scholarship.

Sage Tolentino
Grant: “That championship game, he went off with rebounding and blocking shots. We were on him all year about attacking the offensive boards. In the state tournament, he really put it to use. He used to go in and stand behind the defender. Just wasted movement. So in the state championship game and the game before, he was trying to get into crevices. I told him, just touch the ball. If you touch it, you can get it. That made a big difference for us. That was big.”

Did the rotation change?
Grant: “Rotation always changes when we have more TV games. More time outs means less bench needed.”

What or who surprised you most?
Grant: “What surprised me the most: I knew the three seniors would step up, but to the amount that they did with all the adversity was simply remarkable.”

What were the most adverse challenges?
Grant: “Dealing with all the injuries and illnesses late in the season. Liko, knee. Niko, knee and ankle. Sage, ankle. And I think almost everyone had a cold or the flu at some point of the season.”

What was the peak? What was the low?
Grant: “Beating Damien for the 4th time. I just felt we didn’t match up good with them and to pull that off was amazing. I don’t think we really had a low. We all knew that we were gonna lose some games so just managing our thought process was our only concern. Liko’s injury was a concern but he was such a warrior that I had a strong feeling he would pull through. It kind of worked out for the better being able to rotate Reggie in for defense for Liko late in games.”

What will you miss about this group?
Grant: “I always miss what the seniors do for the team and program. These three seniors were no different. Every coach wants their seniors to step up in big moments. All three did so in various ways.”

What are you anticipating for offseason and next season?
Grant: “We have established a great training program. With weight training and beach workouts the boys have lots to do to get stronger physically and mentally. I just pray we all can get through this madness and we can get back to our normal lives.”


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