Hoopbook: Pupule’s Top 10 post-season questions

‘Iolani freshman JJ Mandaquit, who scored 18 points, and Aaron Claytor (six points, four assists) took a loss to No. 1 Sierra Canyon in stride. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

The 2022 postseason in answered some vital questions about many things Hawaii high school roundball.

There are also many questions left unanswered, like why aren’t there UNDISPUTED boys champions in the BIIF and MIL?

There is logic, of course, in the eyes of fans at Division I programs like Baldwin and Hilo, which won their respective leagues. If D-II programs want it, they can always request to move up given the proper procedures and timing. But the pupule fan in all of us has to wonder.

Here go some questions.

The Baldwin Bears celebrated their MIL championship with family members of former Bears player Mafatini Mafatini, who recently died in an accident on the mainland, coach Cody Tesoro said. Photo courtesy of Cody Tesoro.
Maui Prep (17-0) became the first team from the MIL to win a boys basketball state championship on Feb. 26, 2022. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.
A trip to East Hawaii often brings rewards to the Kohala Cowboys, who open their defense of the Division II boys basketball state title on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Reeve Cazimero.
The Hilo Vikings are seeded third and a relative unknown in the Heide & Cook/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships. With a wipeout of many preseason games statewide, the Vikings and their hyper-speed pace could be a big challenge for ILH runner-up ‘Iolani. Photo courtesy of Heidi Pana.

>> 1. So why didn’t the MIL and BIIF settle things on the court?

On the Big Island, Kohala and Hilo never met on the hardwood during the regular season, but the Cowboys did play the Vikings in preseason and won. The BIIF, like the OIA, normally plays a combined round-robin schedule as D-I and D-II programs square off during the regular season. This year, it was D-II playing against D-I foes in its geographical divisions (West and East), and playing all opponents in its classified division (D-I, D-II). Such is the way in a pandemic world of prep sports scheduling.

Kohala, the defending D-II state champion, topped Hilo, 63-56, in Hilo, and routed another D-I program, Lahainaluna, 53-36.

O’Shen (Cazimero) sat the first quarter in both games for missing a practice,” Kohala coach Kihei Kapeliela noted.

Kohala (11-1, 7-0) was the undisputed BIIF champion two years ago en route to the D-II state crown. By the looks of it, the rising Vikings of Hilo (8-3, 8-1) are in good hands with former state championship player Ben Pana at the helm. Kohala was as tough as they were in 2020, registering a litany of blowout wins against all opponents in league play. The Cowboys also dominated most competition at the D-II state tourney last week.

That leads to Maui Prep (17-0), which throughly trampled all D-II competition in the MIL and state tournament. Na Pueo began its ride way back in the spring of 2021, not long after the winter season was cancelled statewide. They sent a clear message to the rest of the MIL by hosting a “club” tournament and defeated the league’s top D-I teams, Baldwin, Maui and Lahainaluna.

Later, two Lunas transferred to MPA, rounding out a strong rotation that included point guard Drew Triplett. The soon-to-be senior returned home to Portland during the cancelled winter season to play for his former school, then came back to West Maui to work out with his Pueo teammates. Triplett, the most outstanding player in the D-II state tourney, is highly interested in Pepperdine, and studying abroad.

Whether a six-man rotation would have sufficed in a much, much more physical D-I schedule in the MIL is impossible to gauge. MPA developed immense chemistry, ball movement, man-to-man defense and control of pace. The question surfaced in many a conversation: why not see these two premier MIL teams have an exhibition game. By midseason, Baldwin had control of the MIL D-I race, but also had many games to reschedule due to protocols.

MPA didn’t have the same problem in an MIL D-II slate that was sparse in comparison. The big gaps between games gave Na Pueo fans reason to hope for a showdown with Baldwin at some point. But Baldwin coach Cody Tesoro noted the lack of time in the remaining schedule, and hope for a duel dissipated.

“We tried and it didn’t work out,” MPA co-head coach Zach Bailey said.

The risk of injury before the playoffs and state tourney would not have been worthwhile, particularly for a Baldwin team that had so few games together as a healthy, full roster. Baldwin went on to push eventual D-I state champion Saint Louis in the semifinals before losing 40-32.

MPA crushed Kaimuki in the D-II state final. Even MIL D-I runner-up Kamehameha-Maui, which beat Baldwin the league playoffs, was in a very close battle with Maryknoll before falling in the opening round in Pukalani. It was strong representation by the MIL as a whole.

Next season might not have the same clout. Baldwin, which had already played this season without four of its top five guards, will lose 6-foot-7 bookends Quintan Akaka and Hudson Yarbrough. KS-Maui will lose three-sport standout Kale Spencer.

MPA will graduate Triplett, twins Jimmy and Dylan Falk, Koenig Biegle and Levi Basurto — the entire starting five. The question of whether Maui Prep is prepared to move up to Division I is relatively unreasonable considering the remaining roster — junior Emerson Flores, and freshmen Kai Shievely, Chris Salem and Kai Godwin — without an influx of new players, there wouldn’t be enough to field a team next season.

Coach Bailey is confident that new players up from the middle school will keep the program solvent and successful. The brand-new gym, the gorgeous campus in Napili, and the support of benefactors are all factors that could make Maui Prep successful as a basketball program — more than those that had a similar blueprint over the past decade. Academy of the Pacific had a two-year run of Division I success before the school closed its doors. St. Francis was a D-II juggernaut before it, too, ceased.

“This group played together for three years. We’re starting over, basically. As coaches, you do this to develop kids, to see them grow. They have to be willing to put in the work and be coachable, and we go from there,” Bailey said.

MPA was seeded fifth by the HHSAA seeding committee, which relies heavily on historical performance at states.

“I know our guys saw that and they were very motivated,” Bailey said. “At the end of the day, you do your best and let the chips fall where they may,”

Bailey and co-head coach Cheyne Dela Garza brought the program up from scratch. Bailey was a middle school coach, and Dela Garza coached some of Na Pueo in the Menehune basketball program. The bar is set, but Bailey is not one to make predictions about next year’s MIL D-II race.

“Time will tell. I don’t like to put things out there. I’m about the process. Nothing is set in stone. You have to take care of your body, eat right, lift weights, work on your skills,” Bailey said.

Just when another comet soars through the basketball universe, the usual happens. Sustaining a team this strong and bright isn’t common. If this is a one-shot deal for Na Pueo, what a ride it was.

“We’ll gauge who our athletes our and start getting ready,” said Bailey, who grew up playing in Florida.

Bailey still laces up the sneakers and practices against his team, a defacto scout team player.

“There have been summers when I played in high school, went to camps and learned I have to put in work in the lab. I don’t like losing against my team,” he said. “Me and Mason Triplett, and Jim Ellia, our coaches, trying to whip ‘em up a little bit.”

This could, of course, be the beginning of a new era, but Bailey remains constant in his mantra.

“I just live in the moment, man. I just try to be the best I can each day,” he said. “We’re just really humbled and grateful.”

>> 2. Raider nation optimistic — for now

The last time a freshman-sophomore duo was this potent in the ILH, Maryknoll had such a dazzling future with ninth grader Justice Sueing Jr. and 10th grader Brian Washington. Sueing, at 6-2, was a gifted, resilient scorer who was strong enough to finish inside, skilled enough to hit big buckets from mid-range, and had a fluid 3-point stroke.

Washington, already a 6-7, was a phenom out of Kailua who had dominated youth leagues on Oahu with his length and shot-blocking prowess. In the aftermath of an ILH playoff loss at Maryknoll, the two young standouts were told that within a year or two, they would likely lead the Spartans to a state title — if they stayed.

Washington immediately asked his teammate, “You’re staying, right?”

Sueing didn’t hesitate.


Within a year, Sueing was at Mater Dei, a California powerhouse. Washington left soon after when his family moved to the mainland. Maryknoll survived and thrived, of course, winning the D-I state titles in 2018 and ’19.

That brings us to ‘Iolani (17-3, 9-3 ILH), which has a 1-2 combo in freshman JJ Mandaquit and sophomore Aaron Claytor. The versatility of the two young playmakers — either can play the point or wing without missing a beat — makes them the most likely to move forward and capture at least one state championship.

But will they still be here long enough? Rumors swirl about changes, whether Mandaquit will relocate to Oregon, where he already has an offer from the University of Portland, and the Rose City Rebels (class of 2025) are his defacto club team — and playing in the EYBL this spring and summer. Mandaquit has already refuted that rumor.

Another rumor swirling is that Claytor may move to the mainland to be closer to extended family. Again, unsubstantiated, but given the history of elite players finding greener pastures, who knows?

Either way, the Raiders will always survive, but the possibility, even if it is remote, that their two best young players could depart some day, would be a gut punch. Especially when they reached the state semifinals and were one missed layup away from beating Mililani in regulation before losing in overtime.

Between the rumors around ‘Iolani’s standouts and Maryknoll losing smooth-shooting, 7-foot Sage Tolentino, a key part of its back-to-back titles, when he relocated to Ohio, the question remains: what will it take for the state’s top programs to hold on to their best players?

Perhaps the grass is greener wherever you water it.

>> 3. The Zion era begins?

While incoming freshmen Mandaquit and Saint Louis’ Pupualii Sepulona drew plenty of attention, the move of Zion Milare from the island of Maui to Maryknoll came with plenty of anticipation — and curiosity.

Millare had been a stupendous playmaker for club teams in Las Vegas last season. The cat-quick guard wound up moving to Oahu to enroll as a sophomore at Maryknoll, where he mostly watched and learned the system as veteran guards Parker Grant and Justin Yap led the backcourt.

Maryknoll (15-7) finished third in the ILH, lost to OIA champion Mililani, 49-43, then wrapped up the state tourney with wins over Hilo (53-29) and Kahuku (49-47). Logan Dias (11 ppg) Grant (7 ppg) will graduate, as will Micah Sakamoto, Jaren Kaneshiro and 6-4 center Zion Bruce.

Yap, a sharpshooting junior, will be one of 10 returnees next season. Milare saw limited action, but exploded for 20 points in a win over Mid-Pacific late in the regular season. There won’t be a single coach or player, including Milare, who will subscribe to any “Zion era” or anything close to individual spotlight.

There will be doubt. Milare, a 5-8 guard, averaged less than 4 points per game. Talent-wise, however, his skill set and twitchy offensive game are rare. The other intriguing fact: if the family had not moved to Oahu at the end of 2020, Milare would have played for Maui Prep or Baldwin.

“I’m from Oahu, so I wanted to come back home and I wanted him to play in the ILH,” said Jacob Milare , Zion’s father.

“MPA was stuck in D-II. Coach Cheyne (De La Garza) really wanted them to play in D-I, but they weren’t allowed to.”

If Milare had played at MPA, the run for a D-II state title would have remained unscathed, but there was no way Na Pueo would have been able to play in D-I — by MIL rule, the two-year window. Had Milare attended Baldwin, he would have teamed up with a stacked group of giants during a year when the team lost four guards.

“All of those guys are my guys. I was training some of them for five, six years,” said Jacob Millare, who coached No Ka Oi basketball club. “If two of those guards (out of four missing players) had played, I don’t know if anything would’ve changed. They played great defense against Saint Louis and Hayden (Bayudan).”

Mililani ended a drought by winning the OIA boys basketball crown for the first time since 2008. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

>> 4. Trojan victory march: sustainable?

Fast or slow, the Mililani Trojans (17-2) conquered all but one in the 2021-22 season. With a bevy of quick, skilled and opportunistic guards, coach Garrett Gabriel’s team soared to the school’s first OIA boys basketball title.

Then, the unexpected. Fatigue. Injury. Trey Lieb wasn’t himself after scoring 27 points in the OIA semifinals, suffering an ankle injury. As a unit, Mililani found ways to advance through the state tourney before falling to top-seeded Saint Louis in the final.

No Mililani team had gotten this far in boys hoops. Not Trey Brown and Kaipo Patoc in the early 2000s. Not Curtis Murakami and Taz Stevenson in ’08. Culture is a hard thing to imprint year after year, particularly for public schools. Gabriel is proving that it certainly isn’t impossible.

The Trojans, who finished No. 2 in the final Star-Advertiser Top 10 of the season, will miss Lieb, Jackson Mayo, Brayden Yadao, Dylan Flanders, Moeva Pine and Tavo Motuapuaka. But the returnees will include Jayden Kipapa, Lauvai Pine, J Marxen and Creighton Ofsonka — not a bad core at all. In fact, it may be the best returning group of the ’22-23 season in the OIA.

How loaded was the Mililani JV? Stay tuned.

Hudson Yarbrough (6 feet, 7 inches), Avery Pauole (6-6) and Quintan Akaka (6-7) say there were some butterflies in their state quarterfinal battle with Kailua. The Bears rallied from a 13-point deficit for a 60-57 win. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

>> 5. Baldwin’s perfect storm ends?

This front court towered over the Finau brothers of yesteryear. Those fantastic bigs started out at Lahainaluna, then wound up at Maui. The Sabers were undefeated — 27-0 if memory serves — before losing in the quarterfinals of the state championships. Adapting to different officiating crews from other islands IS and always has been a major factor across basketball and football.

Maui didn’t adjust in the first half of that loss. By the time they got more physical, it was too late.

This season, Baldwin (12-6) had all the components and gave Saint Louis a major scare in the semifinal round. Quintan Akaka is basically the Swiss Army knife of prep hoops. The closest comparable big capable of playing at least three positions (off the top of my head) this well is EJ Kapihe of Kamehameha, who arguably can play four positions.

It won’t be easy to replace Hudson Yarbrough, a money mid-range shooter who left most of the rebounding to Akaka and Avery Pauole. That’s 6-7, 6-7 and 6-6. And they were arguably the second-best team in the tournament. Or was it more about matchups?

Either way, the Bears seem like a program that had a peak-performance season, but it seems unlikely (no hate) that they can duplicate this. This would’ve been the right year, except for one thing: four of their five top guards ended up not playing this year. That makes what coach Cody Tesoro and his staff did a minor miracle.

“I don’t like to speculate on the what ifs. The players we had did tremendously well and I’m proud of the whole team,” Tesoro said. “We were a possession or two from possibly being in the state championship game. Although we fell short of our goal, the maturity that this team showed all year, battling through adversity, is what I’m proud of.”

With Akaka helping in the backcourt, Baldwin’s guards did a solid job of handling Saint Louis’ fullcourt pressure — the same relentless heat Kahuku was unable to withstand one night earlier.

So does Baldwin rebuild or reload? If the next crop of guards has talent — almost a given in Wailuku — they will flourish under Tesoro, one of the greatest point guards in Baldwin history. (And yes, we can remember JJ Vroom’s fantastic career quite well.)

“Due to the issues we’ve dealt with in regards to our roster, we had six JV players come up and play varsity minutes. They all will be a big part of what we do next season: Kolt (Yarbrough), Chaz (Villados), Naliko (Chung), Xyler (Nakamura), La‘a (Manangan) and Arjei (Paet),” Tesoro said.

The Kaimuki Bulldogs are 12-4 overall with a six-game win streak coming into the Division II state championships. Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Hightower.

>> 6. Future of the Dawg Pound: bright or dimming in Division I?

The Kaimuki Bulldogs (14-5, 7-4 OIA East) finished in the top seven of the OIA East — fourth to be exact — regardless of classification, guaranteeing a promotion to Division I next season. Winning the OIA championship, making a memorable run to the D-II state final — not many teams made that big step forward from the beginning of the season like Kaimuki did.

However, coach Greydon Espinda will lose 10 seniors, including high-flying Malu Cleveland, hustling KC Renton, versatile Rashawn Fritz-Betiru and reliable trench man Sean Arakawa. That kind of departure would sink most D-II programs, but the ‘Dogs have this returning next season: sophomore guards Jeremiah White and Daysen Lupica, and sophomore post Harmon Sio.

“I expect them to train harder this year. Our goal will be to make it to the playoffs, that’s our first goal,” Espinda said. “And hope to challenge for a league title, and hopefully get into the state (tournament).”

Sio was a tank-sized spark plug during Kaimuki’s late-season run — an eight-game win streak — and should be a force on the block next season. The experience of this season will be invaluable for Lupica and White, who played together for the first time. White’s first priority is football, but his development from November to February was incredibly remarkable. White is the youngest cousin of the Viena siblings — Bulla (Saint Louis, all-state Fab 15), Drew (arguably AOP’s most valuable piece during their two-year run), Kodee (Maryknoll, all-state Fab 15) and Malosi (Pearl City, now playing at Gallaudet).

“I think we’ll be all right. Our backcourt returns intact. The offseason will be busy,” Espinda said. “We’ll play in summer leagues, plus we’ll do conditioning, strength training.”

Espinda and his staff have some nice talent coming up from the JV, but teaching basketball IQ to a legion of hoopsters who lost one year of organized play will test the limits of any coach. The Bulldogs have wanted to return to D-I, and their wish has come true.

“We’re excited for D-I. I think the last time we were in that was 2016 and we didn’t do well,” Espinda said. “The greatest thing about the OIA is that because you play both D-I and D-II teams, nothing changes. The only part that changes is when you go into postseason.”

>> 7. Kapaa’s green light, or is it yellow?

The Warriors of Kapaa (11-1, 9-0 KIF) were unchallenged in conference play, then fell in a state quarterfinal rout against Maui Prep. It hurt. For some observers, MPA as a four seed and Kapaa as a five seed was inaccurate, but the seeding committee has always, always placed a priority on history. Turns out, MPA was quite the outlier as a stacked D-I level squad with or without an experienced bench.

Kapaa could’ve felt a bit better after Maui Prep went on to wallop Kohala and Kaimuki for the D-II state title. Moving on is the best way to process for Kapaa, which later beat Waipahu and Le Jardin to place a solid fifth.

The Warriors will lose savvy senior guard Kala Rall (14 ppg) and 6-2 senior Epoki Tafea to graduation, but sophomore Keaka Kauhane (14 ppg), junior Mikey Questin (12 ppg), and 6-2 junior Solomone Malafu (6 ppg) will return. The chemistry of those three and other Warriors who have played together since hanabada days is immeasurable.

Kauhane plans to stay at Kapaa for junior year, then possibly return to Kamehameha, where he played JV basketball in the ILH’s unusually early schedule (October-December).

As for Malafu, there is no place like home. Younger sister Olivia had a standout season on the hardwood for the Kapaa’s girls basketball squad. Malafu’s sensational junior season on the gridiron — Kapaa won the D-II football state championship — carried over to the basketball court, where the Warriors remained unbeaten in KIF play. Since the football season ended, he has earned Star-Advertiser All-State first-team honors, competed in an NFL prep combine and received more offers.

His offer list: Arizona, Arizona State, Boise State, Hawaii, Utah and Utah State. It appears that with enough production and exposure, a small-town scholar-athlete will show up on plenty of radars. Clearly.

Even a powerhouse recruiting program like Bishop Gorman is interested.

“They’ve contacted me. They just told me I can visit, when I was up there. I didn’t have time. I didn’t get a chance to. I’m just going to stay home,” Malafu said.

As middle schooler, he once participated in an EBC basketball camp on the mainland. Now, his future is on the gridiron.

“It was great. This is where I get a lot of my conditioning in. After this, back to offseason training for football,” Malafu said.

That doesn’t mean basketball is less loved and valued. At heart, the Warriors are already motivated about the 2022-23 hoops season.

“We’ve just got to play hard. We were talking about it, our game plan, now we know what to do to prepare for next season,” Malafu said.

Damien (17-2) has nearly its entire roster ready to return next season. Photo courtesy of Mark Arquero.

>> 8. Will the Lady Monarchs of Damien stay or go?

The talent, the coaching, the potential is there for the Damien Monarchs (17-2, 12-1 ILH D-II), possibly the best girls basketball team to not be ranked in the Top 10 this season.

They were so close. Damien edged Campbell and routed a solid Kapolei team during preseason. With key players out due to protocols, they lost to Kamehameha before the ILH D-II regular season began. They peaked late in the season, then suffered a heartbreaking state quarterfinal loss to the surging Sacred Hearts Lancers.

The pain should become additional fuel for the hungry young team on Houghtailing St. But where will they land next season? Damien, like several other D-II teams in the ILH, are good enough to compete in D-I, but most programs prefer to win a state title in D-II before moving up.

Coach Mark Arquero may be at a crossroads, if the decision is his alone — but it isn’t, of course.

“It’s undecided right now because it’s something isn’t solely my decision. It’s definitely on my radar,” he said.

Theresa Anakalea, the high-motor scorer, will be a senior next season. Anakalea (20 ppg) scored a career-high 33 points in the loss to SHA. The roster had only one senior, Shayna Selesele. Sophomore Kenna Wengler (8 ppg) and junior Tiare Arquero (8 ppg) will be back. Eight returnees in all will return, a balance of speed and size, slashers and gunners.

If administration at Damien — and the ILH — were to approve a move to D-I, the league would then have five girls basketball teams in D-I. The MIL and BIIF also have five, which would lead to play-in games for state-tournament berths. A three-team tie-breaking series of pigtail games? More (pre) state-tourney games, more awesomeness.

>> 9. Is it time to expand the girls D-I state tournament to 16 teams and the boys D-II tournament to 12 teams?

More than a few coaches have noted that this would be fitting in 2022, which might seem surprising given that numbers are down overall in girls basketball. However, the supply of quality players and teams has not shrunk, and a look at the state’s top 50 to 60 players reveals that the elite level remains stocked.

Expansion is never an easy subject to broach, and with added teams would come added travel costs and expenses. But it would also provide every deserving team of a shot, whether it was the boys team at Hawaii Prep, or the girls team at Kamehameha, the boys teams at Kamehameha and Punahou, and on and on.

There is hardly a coach against expansion, but like fans, they don’t get to make final decisions.

>> 10. Do leagues absolutely have to follow federation guidelines if and when shot clocks are adopted?

The difference in cost is substantial. A mounted shot clock, even on a wall, would likely come with a $2,000 bill. A clock on a table or elsewhere would keep the cost somewhere around $500. Big difference.

The state of Hawaii is nowhere near discussion about following the rest of the nation and utilizing a shot clock, as recommended by the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS). The federation also discourages the use of power rating (win-loss record) as a criteria for classification by states, but that hasn’t stopped all leagues. The OIA has a unique set of challenges as a massive entity, and the power-rating format has served it well.

But fans are quite underwhelmed by games dictated by outright stalling in the final minutes, or even the entire final quarter. The clock is ticking.

The Saint Louis Crusaders (20-2) captured their first boys basketball state championship since 1986. Paul Honda/phonda@staradvertiser.com.

>> BONUS QUESTION: Will Saint Louis repeat as Division I boys basketball state champion?

Coach Dan Hale has now led three programs to two state championships and three district championships in Hawaii and Virginia. Something about this year’s crown is something different considering the 36-year drought for the Crusaders between titles.

“It’s been amazing! The boys on campus are ecstatic as well as the faculty and administration. I am also hearing daily from alumni young and old about how happy they are for the team,” he said. “This has been a great jolt of positivity for our community.”


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