There’s a new king on the throne.
The Damien Monarchs followed up last week’s triumph at the Pete Smith Classic by stunning Punahou 65-57 on Monday night in the final of the inaugural Damien Invitational at Bishop Scanlan Gymnasium.
At 6-0, the Division II Monarchs have a compelling case as the best boys basketball team in the state. Across the ledger, Damien has defeated some of the state’s regulars in postseason play, from Campbell (62-47) and two-time defending D-II state champion St. Francis (74-60) to Kalaheo (66-57) and now, defending D-I state champ Punahou.
Coach Alvin Stephenson is as calm as he is stunned. With a solid core of guards, Damien finished second to St. Francis in the D-II state tourney last season. St. Francis is now in D-I, leaving Damien as the favorite in the ILH and, should the Monarchs qualify, state tournament in D-II.
But they’re already proving to be supreme in D-I. And there won’t be any switch soon; the time to declare has passed. They get one more week against D-I competition, including games at the St. Francis Holiday Hoops Classic, before ILH D-II regular season tips off.
Coach Stephenson chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Tuesday afternoon.
HPW: The revelation for me watching your team beat Kalaheo last week was Jake Holtz. He’s a talented football player with a lot of potential, but on the basketball court, wow. He came out of nowhere. Did he suit up last year?
Stephenson: Jake didn’t play last year. He sat out because he transferred from Saint Louis. He’s a quarterback, so us and Saint Louis swapped. They took Jayden de Laura and we took Jake.
HPW: Did he practice last year while he sat out?
Stephenson: He was completely out of sight. I didn’t meet Jake until this summer.
HPW: So that was summer league?
Stephenson: Yeah. He was doing pretty much what he’s doing now. I said, wow, we’ve got a pretty good big man who runs the floor.
HPW: It’s hard to find a post player who is willing to stay in there and battle for every board. Has he always been the big man?
Stephenson: He told me he was always the center growing up.
HPW: It’s always fun to see a guy who plays a finesse position in football who’s a banger on the basketball court, or vice-versa.
Stephenson: Our football coaches are shocked to see how physical he is on the basketball court.
HPW: He’s a good 6-3 and a half, maybe 6-4.
Stephenson: 6-4, I would say.
HPW: Do you let him shoot from the arc? Or do you feel like you’ve got plenty of guys out there?
Stephenson: He wants to shoot the 3, but we tell him don’t worry about because we’ve got so many guys who can hit it consistently. He’s bought into his role.
HPW: The win over Punahou last night, a team that won the state D-I title and is going through the usual transition with some huge losses to graduation, it’s a win-win for your team. Most people will cheer for the underdog, but your team is not really a surprise anymore. And if someone stops Jydon (Hall) or Jake, there are other guys who can easily pump in 15, 20, 25 points.
Stephenson: Last night was a good indicator of what we potentially can be. Nobody was worried about scoring. They wanted to play defense. Just have composure and just let the game come to you. They’re starting to buy into all of that, and we haven’t played our best basketball. We still make a lot of mistakes and there’s a lot to clean up.
HPW: OK, please allow me to go into crazy fan mode. What if, somehow, the ILH and HHSAA came to your school and said, there’s a way we might be able to move your program to D-I this season. And the ILH would get maybe one more state-tourney berth. Would you be willing?
Stephenson: I would talk to my AD about it, we have a good relationship, to look at the pros and cons. If you ask the boys, they would absolutely say let’s go. But to keep them hungry, we have to at least win a league championship. We’ve been down here, so close, injuries one year, then battling with St. Francis and falling short. So the goal is to win a league or a state championship. We win one and and we will move up.
HPW: One of the intriguing things is the team is still fairly young.
Stephenson: We have three seniors. Lindon (Sevilleja Jr.), Dorien (Penebacker) and Tanner (Souza).
HPW: So (Hayden) Bayudan isn’t a senior?
Stephenson: He’s a freshman.
HPW: Wow. Between Lindon, Dorien, Hayden, Jydon and Bryce (Forbes), that’s a group with a lot of chemistry, length, unselfishness. And yet, hardly anyone saw this coming. Based on last year, Top 10 was reasonable. But Top 3? Or No. 1? Here’s a crazy fan, social media type of question: ‘Why didn’t Damien declare for Division I in the first place? Must be scared.’
Stephenson: We’re not scared. I didn’t realize we would be this good. I’m shocked like everyone else, to be honest with you. These kinds of teams don’t come around very often. We’re just enjoying the journey. It’s good for the school to be able to see this. We weren’t scared or anything.
HPW: That is very obvious. It’s been a year, and last season’s team was really good, but what’s changed?
Stephenson: This is a lot different from last year. We’ve matured a lot more, Losing in the state final, it’s crazy to say, but it’s a good thing. It motivated them to want to practice harder and beat everyone in the their path. To prove that they belong, that Damien’s not a doormat. The look in their eyes is different. I’m trying to keep motivating them and keep them humble.
HPW: So early rankings, not from the Star-Advertiser or Hawaii Prep World, had Punahou at No. 1. That makes sense as a defending state champion, but there’s going to be a much different look. We’ll have our boys basketball poll soon. All these teams your team has beaten, does it matter if they were ranked higher?
Stephenson: Punahou deserved to be No. 1 just like St. Francis should be No. 2, two teams that were state champions. Then things happened in preseason.
HPW: For your guys who pay attention to rankings, is that something you want, or would you prefer that they shut it out.
Stephenson: I told them to ignore all the noise, focus on us. If we’re ranked, great. If not, no biggie. Play every game as hard as a we can, and learn and have fun.
HPW: Who is the most underrated player on the team?
Stephenson: The most underrated person on our team is Dorien Penebacker. He doesn’t score a lot, but the rebounds, he gets loose balls, pushes the ball on the fasbreak, the screens he sets, he’s the glue to our team. He does all the dirty work. Last night, he was holding down the big guys. Duke (Clemens) is 6-5, 290 and Dorrien is 6-3 and maybe 175 pounds soaking wet. He held down the guy from Kahuku for a half. There’s games we literally have to carry him to the lockerroom at halftime. I saw him on campus and he’s limping today. He said, ‘Coach I’ll be good for the next game.’
HPW: How special is it to beat Punahou? Is it special for the players, or is it special for you, too?
Stephenson: I think it’s special to everybody, me, the kids the school, our coaches. Beating them kind of shows all the hard work we’ve put in to prepare them for every game. School-wise, I don’t think we’ve ever beaten Punahou (in basketball). When I was an assistant, in my first year we lost to them by 50. My first year as a head coach, we lost by 30. To see them perform the way they did was awesome. We have a lot of respect for all of our opponents. We’re just happy to win our first tournament.
HPW: So it might be better not to be voted No. 1.
Stephenson: I’m going to be biased. I want us to be the No. 1 team in Hawaii.
HPW: Your key guys in the rotation, the passing, the timing, they’re all there. How long have they been at Damien?
Stephenson: Dorien’s been here since eighth grade. Jydon and Lindon since freshman year. Hayden since eight grade.
HPW: What about your tall guy, Bryce?
Stephenson: This is his first year playing. He transferred from Radford and sat out last year. The unique thing is they’re all friends. He and Boogie (Jydon Hall) went to elementary school together and played against each other in club. They and Jeremy (Marquette) all live next to each other in military housing. (Bryce’s) mom is in the Army. She found out about Damien from her boss, whose daughter goes to Damien.
HPW: The grapevine works. So what’s next for the team?
Stephenson: We play at Castle tomorrow (Wednesday) and at Kapolei on Dec. 4. Then it’s the St. Francis tournament.
HPW: So, from what I see on the bracket, if Damien gets past Kailua and St. Francis wins, Damien and St. Francis will meet in the semifinal round. It’s almost like the Saints want a shot at revenge, though ti’s probably coincidental. Have your players seen the bracket?
Stephenson: They know. Originally we were supposed to play at Kahuku on Nov. 30, but we cancelled that because we were supposed play them at the St. Francis tournament. Then they rescheduled the tournament.
HPW: That might stoke the fire.
Stephenson: We always want to play them and they always want to play us.
HPW: These big, early wins will certainly raise expectations from everyone. Fans, especially.
Stephenson: We just try to stay the course. The preseason’s kind of us evaluating, so I’m not putting any pressure on the kids. My speech every day is stay composed and have fun. We’ll make adjustments, but there’s no pressure.