Coaching changes happen often enough, and they go unnoticed at times.
The boys basketball season has been over in Hawaii for less than three weeks, but the changes coming could have a domino effect with more impact than usual.
It began with news that Sol Batoon had been released after two seasons as Saint Louis coach. That was relatively sudden, given that the middle-school and elementary-school level teams have been more active than usual under Batoon’s watch. Playing in youth leagues in Honolulu (as Kalaepohaku) much more frequently. Saint Louis (10-10 overall) was 7-0 at one point and ranked as high as No. 5 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10.
A few days before Batoon was summoned to the administrative office, he had been making his daily walk around a local mall. He bumped into a prep sportswriter and expressed excitement about the season ahead. The system was generating more basketball-first players.
By Feb. 21, however, Batoon’s time at Saint Louis was over.
Four days later Castle coach Neil Bowers stepped down after four seasons as Knights head coach.
Four days after that, on Mar. 1, six days after the season ended, ‘Iolani coach Dean Shimamoto announced his departure after 10 seasons. Shimamoto’s teams won three state championships, and even when he didn’t have a top-seeded team, the Raiders often put a dent into the plans of other league champions. This season, ‘Iolani, the ILH’s third-place team, knocked out OIA champion Moanalua in the state quarterfinals. Shimamoto, with a young family, decided the time was right to step away.
So, in the span of roughly one week, three coaching positions were vacated. The most magnetic of the three posts is ‘Iolani, 11-time state champion.
At least one applicant is a current ‘Iolani coach. Rudy Tulonghari, a longtime intermediate head coach with assistant experience at the varsity and JV levels. Tulonghari was a finalist for the Saint Louis position when it opened up two years ago. He is not applying for the same job this time.
At least one longtime ‘Iolani supporter speculates that Harvey Kitani and Steve Baik would be good fits. Kitani, formerly of Fairfax and currently head coach at Rolling Hills (Calif.), has also served as a court coach for the USA U17 World Cup Team Training Camp.
Baik, the current Fairfax coach, was previously at Chino Hills (Calif.).
There is no indication that Kitani or Baik would leave Southern California to coach in the islands. Though the Raiders have ties to Fairfax through the ‘Iolani Prep Classic, finding size and talent is much more difficult in Hawaii.
There’s one element in ‘Iolani’s favor, perhaps. The international dormitory has been open since the start of the 2018-19 year. On paper, that could open doors for basketball student-athletes from around the globe. However, tuition and boarding hover around $60,000 annually, according to the ‘Iolani athletic department.
The odds-on favorite for the position is former ‘Iolani standout guard Ryan Hirata, currently the head coach at Mid-Pacific Institute. After helping the Raiders win a state title as a player, Hirata went on to Chaminade, where he is currently employed. Chaminade shares the same facility as Saint Louis. It’s quite possible that the Crusaders have been interested in Hirata in the past, and again in the very present. It just makes perfect sense, unless he stays put at MPI or returns to ‘Iolani.
He began coaching at Mid-Pacific in the 2014-15 season. This year’s Owls were ranked in the Top 10 during the first three weeks of the season, rising as high as No. 7. Hirata declined to say much about the ‘Iolani position.
“I’m not sure yet,” he said over the weekend.
Here’s where the dominoes could begin to fall. If Hirata leaves MPI for ‘Iolani, that would leave longtime assistant coach Robert Shklov with a choice to make. He could follow Hirata to ‘Iolani or stay at MPI and apply for the head coaching position.
Even if Hirata remains at Mid-Pacific, maybe Shklov would apply at Saint Louis, where the Crusaders always seem to be at a disadvantage facing basketball-first athletes in the rugged ILH.
St. Francis will cease as a school within a few months, which means Saints coach Ron Durant will be available. Durant, a former coach in the Kamehameha system, applied for the D-I head coaching position last year when Greg Tacon was not retained. He guided St. Francis to D-II state titles in ’17 and ’18.
“I’m still thinking about it,” Durant said, adding that he believes ‘Iolani will lean toward Hirata if and when he applies.
Another possibility is longtime Roosevelt coach Steve Hathaway, who led the Rough Riders to OIA D-II titles in ’10 and ’16. He began his head coaching career at Maryknoll. Both of his children attend Saint Louis, so the logical progression might be for him to coach there, as well. He has not indicated whether he has applied for the position there or elsewhere.
“Those are two very intriguing jobs. At one, you get the best athletes in the state. At the other, you have the most basketball-minded kids,” Hathaway said.
Another of the wild cards is former Kalaheo coach Alika Smith, who guided his alma mater to a D-II state title in 2012, then D-I championships in ’13 and 15. He coached in the ILH for one season, leading Punahou to a 24-4 mark in 2010. Within days, he was the new coach at Kalaheo.
Smith is well aware of the vacancies, but has not indicated interest nor disinterest. There’s also the specter of administrators who may or may not require the signing of a Positive Coaching Alliance agreement — as was the case at Kalaheo. But again, imagine the possibilities.
>> At ‘Iolani, where there is a solid core of coaches rooted in the system, hiring Smith might alter that foundation. Then again, he has won everywhere he has coached, and that counts for a great deal.
>> At Saint Louis, a hiring of Smith would be fascinating. He has always been a basketball-player first coach, mixing in a few football players here and there. There is only so much athletic talent at a fairly small school like Saint Louis. Financial aid and scholarships aren’t available as much as they used to be at just about every smaller private school in this era. Would Smith be willing to build from the ground up, even if the process is already underway?
>> Castle. Smith wouldn’t be the first Kalaheo Mustang to coach the program in Kaneohe district. Bowers is a Kalaheo graduate who coached in the Mustangs system before becoming a teacher and coach at nearby Castle. The Knights have a history of success in other sports, less so in boys basketball. Smith may not be interested, but if he were to coach there, the potential would be mesmerizing. The strict transfer rule implemented by the OIA in 2015 is now more, which means players could move into the district and play any sport immediately.
All of this, of course, remains speculation. ‘Iolani senior Frank Felix believes Hirata is a logical fit.
“It’s his style of play,” Felix said.
Felix also played for Smith two summers ago on the Hawaii Select team. Though Hirata, Smith and many other coaches yell from time to time — a no-no in the world of the PCA — Felix believes differently.
“If a coach doesn’t yell, he doesn’t care,” Felix said.
Another wild card with immense experience is Tacon, who took a year off from coaching. He previously was head coach at Punahou, Moanalua and Kamehameha. He led Moanalua to OIA championships in ’10 and 11. Tacon has not indicated whether he has applied for any openings.
Possibly another wild card: former Kaiser coach Branden Kawazoe, who stepped down prior to the 2018-19 season. He was an assistant coach at ‘Iolani before moving on to Kaiser, where he guided the Cougars to OIA D-II crowns in ’14 and 15.
Another title winner who is currently not coaching: Nathan Davis, formerly of Kalani. Davis stepped down to spend more time with family. He is still involved with the Falcons program.
“I’m not interested in any of those,” Davis said. “I’m enjoying the down time, just learning about the game.”
The previous coaches at Saint Louis, Keith Spencer and Allan Silva, offer plenty of experience an success. Silva led Farrington to an OIA D-II title in ’11 and D-I league championships in ’14 and 15 before going to Saint Louis. His Governors won D-II state titles in ’08 and ’11.
“I’m happy doing what I’m doing right now,” said Silva, who helps with the Hawaii Swish. “I haven’t applied anywhere, but if anyone calls me, I’d be willing to listen.”
Spencer had a long coaching stint at Leilehua, but is putting any coaching on hold.
“My only son is a sophomore at Damien, so I’m not coaching until he’s done with high school,” Spencer said.
Then there’s Kekoa Ng, who was a varsity girls coach at Radford, where he is a math teacher. Of late, he assisted at St. Francis. His younger son, Kordel, will be a senior next season and the family lives in Kaneohe. If Kordel Ng stays home to attend Castle after St. Francis closes its doors, Coach Ng might be an ideal choice, if he applies.
Ng said he is “not looking to be a head coach at this time.”
Perhaps the most surprising of potential candidates could be Kahuku coach Brandyn Akana, who led the Red Raiders to the D-I state title in ’17. Kahuku was runner-up in ’18 and finished third in ’16. His resume — and ability to appeal to talented hoopsters from around the Pacific Rim — might play a role in any interview should he apply at an ILH school.