The road as a coach has been peaks and valleys for Keith Spencer, but this stop will be tough to top.
Damien hired the former Leilehua and Saint Louis boys basketball coach, replacing Alvin Stephenson. The Monarchs won a Division II state title under Stephenson in 2018, then moved up to D-I and reached the D-I state tourney. Stephenson stepped down after last season.
“I’m excited to come back and coach at the high school level again,” Spencer said.
The former ‘Iolani standout still has ties to his alma mater, indirectly. He coaches son RJ Spencer on the Hawaii Raiders club team. RJ Spencer is a senior at Damien.
“I actually didn’t want to apply and interfere with RJ’s senior season. I talked with him and let him think about it for two weeks, and he said, ‘Dad, it’s OK.’ I would’ve been watching him as a parent or as a coach. He had to be comfortable,” Spencer said. “What father wouldn’t want to coach his son, but at the same time, it has to be a team goal.”
Damien was 19-16 last season, including 6-6- in the regular season. After wins over Lahainaluna and Moanalua, the Monarchs lost to eventual state champion Maryknoll in the state semifinals.
The Monarchs lost Star-Advertiser All-State Fab 15 selections Jake Holtz and Bryce Forbes to graduation. Point guard Hayden Bayudan, another Fab 15 pick by coaches and media, is one of four key returnees.
Tino Atonio, a 6-foot-5 wing and All-State honorable mention pick, has been working out regularly with RJ Spencer. Ken Mitchell Jr. is another promising, experienced Monarch. Coach Spencer also likes 6-4 Johnny Betham, another returnee.
“They all get along with each other off the court and it translates on the court,” Spencer said.
Damien also hired 2001 graduate and former player Mark Arquero to guide the girls basketball program. Like Spencer, Arquero will be coaching one of his children. Spencer hopes to bond with his players even though the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for teams to meet on campus.
“Today was my second virtual meeting with them,” Spencer said. “I’ve been adding more guys to the virtual meeting, learning who’s going to (try out). Just taking it day by day and being optimistic. Even if it’s a shortened season, at least for the seniors it would be a chance to play.”
The rugged Interscholastic League of Honolulu Division I schedule includes two-time defending state champion Maryknoll, a young and talented Kamehameha squad, and improved teams at Punahou and ‘Iolani. With Mid-Pacific and Saint Louis heading into their second seasons with Coach Robert Shklov and Coach Dan Hale, respectively, the competition will be typically brutal.
“I really think we can move this program to the next level,” Spencer said.