Homemade is quite often sloppy, inelegant, lumpy and bumpy.
Once in awhile, though, homemade is perfectly blended, customized and made to fit an exacting standard beyond anything else in a cookie-cutter world. Amari Westmoreland-Vendiola is the latest among game changers from the North Shore, firmly rooted and proud to represent one of the state’s top high school basketball programs.
When the old basket fronting the home of the Vendiola ohana got weak and wobbly, his grandfather, Berto Vendiola, took it down. The base of it, made of wood, had gotten rotten over the years. He replaced it, reset it and it has stood for many more years fully upright. The backboard got its first-ever coat of paint thanks to Uncle Patrick Bolt, completed in red and black with a centered ‘K’ atop its box.
Westmoreland-Vendiola was happy with his basket before the fix-up. He’s been happy since, even with the extra time his family expects from the Kahuku hoopster. During middle school, he missed a few free throws during a club league game. The family returned home to Kahuku, where he proceeded to line up 15 feet away to shoot 100 free throws. For every miss.
“We have all night,” his mother, Amanda Vendiola, would say to him. “Free throws are free, so make it count.”
It is the way.
“That basket has always been there since before he was a baby,” she said.
Her son did make it count. Again and again and again, hour after hour on that quiet loop, swishing those charity shots. Now a 6-foot-3, 170-pound senior, Westmoreland-Vendiola and his teammates opened the OIA East season with a resounding 74-44 rout of a promising Kaiser team. He scored 25 points and hustled for eight rebounds, sitting the final quarter of a runaway victory. He is rated No. 1 in the upcoming Hawaii Prep World Super 25 Players rankings.
His basketball journey was featured in Tuesday’s Star-Advertiser, taking him from Kahuku to Colorado Springs, Colo., with pit stops in California and Las Vegas during the past year. If it’s not his mother setting the bar, his grandmother, Pualani Vendiola, has long been a regular partner in the voyage. She has driven the miles for her grandson to games and practices across Oahu, and in those sites on the mainland for tournaments and camps. Or, back in the day, taking little Amari to his PAL team practices.
“I was 7 or 8. I played PAL with coach Clayton (Hanohano). He was a running back in high school. Then I played for our club team, Kahuku, from when I was eight until I was 13 or 14. The coach was Lester Damuni, Marcus’ dad,” he recalled.
After spending freshman year at Kahuku on the junior varsity, Westmoreland-Vendiola started at guard on the varsity as a sophomore. The team was fairly successful and young. Junior year was promising. Then the pandemic began, winter season of 2020-21 was wiped out, and Kahuku basketball fans were left lamenting what could’ve been.
“We had a solid team. Shon (Reid), me, Danny Wade and this kid from IMG, Chikara Tanaka. I think we would’ve won states. After they cancelled the season, everybody started leaving,” he said.
Reid transferred to Timpview (Utah). Tanaka went to a prep school on the mainland, Westmoreland-Vendiola believes.
“Danny just stayed. He didn’t even play senior year. His family moved here from Utah and they liked living here. So he stayed and graduated from Kahuku,” he said. “He could shoot.”
Westmoreland-Vendiola transferred with a plan of staying with his father, Winford Westmoreland, in Colorado Springs for two months.
“Our team struggled,” he said.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. Sierra High School plays in Utah’s 4A classification, the second-highest. Westmoreland-Vendiola averaged 25 points per game and made the all-conference second team.
“That’s the first time he got to live with his dad,” Amanda Vendiola said.
His father enjoyed the time with his son, their first together since Winford moved away from Hawaii in 2021.
“We have similar attributes as players. We both can shoot the 3-pointer with consistency. I was taught to play inside as well as outside, so I instilled that in him. Don’t be scared to mix it up under the basket,” he said.
Westmoreland-Vendiola’s training through the pandemic has been off the charts. In eighth grade, his vertical was around 30-31 inches, he said. Now, after working out religiously with coach Chris Parker, it is 40-41 inches, including a four-inch gain since returning to Hawaii in April.
“The boy can flat-out play above the rim. I was below the rim,” Winford Westmoreland said. “I loved to shoot and he has it all. That’s a great thing, an all-around game.”
Being away from home was new for Westmoreland-Vendiola. Dad thinks it will help him in the long run.
“Colorado was a great learning experience for him, like he was in a college dorm and dad was the R.A. (resident advisor). I enjoyed every minute,” Westmoreland said. “In this game, you have ball players and hoopers, and I’m proud to say my son is a hooper. His Texas/Colorado Springs/Georgia family also supports him and his journey. We love you, son. Stay focused and ready.”
During the summer, Westmoreland-Vendiola traveled with Hawaii Select, playing three tournaments in three weeks in Las Vegas. There, a chance encounter led to him playing with a club team called the Las Vegas All-Stars.
“I was sitting at this table where they were playing. A lady sits next to me out of all these empty tables. Her son was coaching their team,” Pualani Vendiola recalled. “She introduced me to him. He and his coaches came and watched Amari play.”
They liked what they saw.
“He said, ‘Your grandson is really good.’ They invited Amari to practice, and they even moved their practice to a later time so it wouldn’t interfere with our team’s practice. Then they called and said they’re going to a tournament in California,” she said.
The tourney in California was a notch tougher. Trey Lieb, a standout player at Mililani, also joined the team.
“They won four straight games to reach the championship. Two of those games, Amari had the buzzer-beater. Trey had a buzzer-beater 3 to tie it and go into overtime. They did well,” she said. “I was so proud of him because he played against good players. He averaged 20-plus points in Vegas. In this tournament, all of his teammates could score and everything wasn’t put on him, so he averaged 14 to 15 points a game.”
A homemade basket and backboard aren’t the only thing the family is good at making. Every afternoon, his grandmother makes two PBJ sandwiches for Westmoreland-Vendiola before he heads to practice at 5 o’clock. Peanut butter and guava butter jam.
“My sister (Maile Vendiola) makes it,” Amanda Vendiola said. “She makes homemade lilikoi butter, lilikoi and guava jam, and guava butter. They live in Punaluu and grow a lot of fruits on their land. It’s a family recipe.”
The routine is part of the process, and Westmoreland-Vendiola wouldn’t have it any other way. He is proud to be in a Kahuku uniform for senior year. Despite having no preseason games, No. 7-ranked Kahuku appears to be the favorite in the East.
“I feel like we have a great team this year and we can go all the way. We just have to lock in mentally and physically. We can win OIA and states. Right now, I feel like we’re not there yet. As the season goes on, we’re going to get better,” Westmoreland-Vendiola said.
Beyond 2022, Kahuku coach Brandyn Akana is excited about his homegrown standout.
“He’s still really young. He’s a young senior, so that’s what’s kind of intriguing. He should be a junior now,” Akana said. “I’ve coached so many different type of players at the college and high school level, and Amari is one of those who won’t get in your face, but he’s a leader with his work ethic. You don’t play around. He takes things seriously. He likes to win. He doesn’t like to lose.”
Westmoreland-Vendiola was voted co-captain along with Kealoha Kaio.
“That shows a lot of respect,” Akana said. “When he’s out there working, you’ve got to join him and do the same. For him, his family is very supportive and that really helps. To get to the next level, he just needs to get better and better, and he knows that. There’s a lot of improvement that needs to happen.”
Amari Westmoreland-Vendiola’s lockdown staples
On the Kahuku roster
The sleepers: “I say Ben (Holakeituai) and Brock (Cravens Fonoimoana). They play like starters. Ben can handle the ball well and doesn’t panic against the press. He just plays his role and that’s what we need. Brock is a very good defender and hustles a lot.”
Funniest: Leonard Ah You.
“He’s the funniest and he brings energy. When it’s game time, he’s focused, he’s serious. He’s loud and makes a lot of noise. He’s just energetic.”
Smartest teammate: Jamerus Tai Hook.
“The smartest in the classroom is Jamerus. The smartest on and off the court is Brock.”
Underrated: Kealoha (Daniel) Kaio
“I’d put Daniel up there. He’s physical. he brings the energy. talks on defense. He does all the little things. He attacks the basket. All our football guys are physical and bring a good presence.”
Top 3 movies/shows
1. “King Richard”
“That’s the one about Serena Williams, with Will Smith in it.”
3. “On my Block.”
“It’s a teenager show on Netflix.”
Top 3 food/snack/drink
1. Fried poke plate (The Bald Guy’s food truck)
“It’s right down the street from where I live in Kahuku, where all the food trucks are. My uncle’s food truck.”
2. Body Armor or Powerade
“I like that after practice.”
3. Peanut butter jelly sandwich
“Before I got to practice, my grandma (Pualani Vendiola) makes me two PBJ sandwiches. I’ve got to have that. She makes it with guava jam.”
Top 3 music artists
1. Rod Wave – “By My Side”
2. NBA YoungBoy – “Valuable Pain”
3. Lil Uzi Vert – “20 Minutes”
Favorite class/teacher: English, fifth grade, Kahuku Elementary with Mrs. Wong.
“This was Mrs. Wong’s class. She was very nice and a great teacher, and she really cared about the kids. Everyone thought she was mean, but she was a good teacher. She passed away, though. She taught for 50 years. I think it was the most in the school’s history.”
GPA: 3.2 (cumulative).
New life skill: Patience
“I couldn’t really play because of the pandemic and COVID, so I was working hard every day and waiting. I didn’t get a job or I didn’t even get my permit yet.”
Hidden talent: Cooking.
“I can cook. I can make great quesadillas. The frozen kind. I just put cheese on it and all the stuff.”
“I would go to the future. I would be kind of scared at the same time because you don’t really want to move on into life that quick. I wouldn’t want to go into the past. I’d want to go three to five years in the future. I’d want to see where I’m at.”
“My family. My family plays a big role in my success. My mom, my grandma, my papa and everyone else. Shout out to coach Akana. He’s helped me a lot. Shout out to my trainer, uncle Chris Parker. He improved my game a lot. We’ve been working out every day since I got back from Colorado. No days off. And my cousin Kahler (Vendiola) and my best friend Ben for pushing me. They train with me every day, so they push me to be the best I can be.”
Proud of this kid. Kahuku, let alone Hawaii, not known for Basketball. Seemed like he could’ve increased his stock elsewhere but chose to stay home. Thank you Amari. This Vendiola family is well known for straight up mean football players. Actually straight up hard work and hustling. I know that backboard all too well. Love to the whole Ohana.
I have been watching this young man for years. He is a really solid player. Nice story! Best of luck!
..I remember seeing that kid at the park with his father a lot practicing and training at a young age while the football team was practicing ..
We are proud of you Amari. From GA, TX and Colorado. Keep up the great job. You and your father worked really hard since the age of 5. You have an amazing support system inside and outside of Hawaii.
Way to go Amari! The family definitely has some bunnies! Please look into Doctor Zalenko’s protocol to keep you safe from covid.
Normally coach Akana has some reinforcements every year
Nice story. Wishing this kid the best.
Is Amari related to the late US Army General William C. Westmoreland, Commanding General of American ground forces in the Vietnam conflict?
I had the pleasure of working out Amari during my visit to Hawaii visiting with my son Christian Parker. I was very impressed by how hard Amari works in every drills we did. I like his skills he’s definitely can play division I level and do well. Very coachable and has a great attitude. Good luck to you and your team this season. Coach Sonny