On the hardwood, the Interscholastic League of Honolulu is treacherous place to be.
Sleep for one minute and the natural hierarchy activates. The food chain is always at risk of shuffling. Victors reap the gold while those who nap are bumped aside. It is a perpetual state of chasing that flag at the top of the mountain even as your team takes every mental and physical wound imaginable.
Maryknoll (25-5 overall) did just that, capturing the ILH regular-season title last week with a 55-43 win over Kamehameha. That also netted an automatic state-tournament berth, the first for the Spartans since 2014.
The Spartans stormed through a mostly favorable nonconference schedule, winning their first 10 games before losing to Paraclete (Calif.) in a one-off, and then losing to powerful Greensboro Day (N.C.). Maryknoll won its next four games, three against Top 10 teams (Kalaheo, Kapolei, Lahainaluna). Then came a stunning win over Corona Del Mar (Calif.) at the Punahou Invitational.
That was followed by a loss to St. Francis, then ranked No. 5 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10. With guards Isiah Gelacio and Jordyn Perez sidelined by injuries, the Spartans lost to Tesoro (Calif.), and the in the ILH season opener to Punahou, 47-42.
Once their senior backcourt was back to good health, the Spartans were back in business, reeling off nine wins in a row. After losing to Punahou, 66-51, tonight, the Spartans will get a second chance at the title on Wednesday at Maryknoll at 6 p.m.
“Losing Jordyn for a short bit actually helped us in that we were able to use Makoto Kamata in the point guard position, which makes us more versatile,” Spartans coach Kelly Grant said. “He has been the most impactful player since being inserted into the starting position. He is an additional 3-point shooter on the floor.”
Grant is in his element, of course. The constant iron-sharpening-iron life in the ILH isn’t for everyone. Grant, who guided Kaimuki to a state title in 2003, keeps moving forward.
“The most memorable aspect has been watching these boys develop into fine young men. Doing community service is the first thing that comes to mind because it has brought this team together. We have asked a lot from them and they have delivered unconditionally,” Grant said.
The ILH title is no done deal, of course. Punahou was No. 1 in the state for most of the season before falling to Maryknoll and ‘Iolani. The Buffanblu have been retooling, sharpening their blades and doing what all great teams in league history do: evolve.
“I still think the top four teams are somewhat even. Everyone’s fortune would have been different simply by a bad bounce or two,” said Grant, an ’84 graduate of Maryknoll. “That’s how close the talent on all the teams are. As for our team, besides losing Ethan Rudometkin, we’ve been somewhat healthy.”
Health and perimeter shooing are key factors, but the emergence of Jaylen Cain as a consistent source of offense is vital. When he attacks the basket continuously, Maryknoll is a different animal.
“Jaylen has been huge for us the last three years. He is an ultimate team player. He has had to change his role a couple of times and has not flinched in his production. His current role is to play the 4 position, which poses matchup problems for opposing teams,” Grant said. “If Jaylen is guarded by a big, he is often too quick and usually blows by them. If he is guarded by a guard, he usually posts up and powers through the defender. The biggest asset has ben his contribution on the boards. Jaylen has had several double-doubles this season. Ask any coach out there about rebounding and you hear, ‘Rebounding is a must.’ “
For two weeks, the school was home to the No. 1 teams in boys and girls basketball. That hasn’t happened since the early 2000s.
“As far as being ranked No. 1 with our girls team, it’s created a buzz on campus and within our alumni and community. We are hoping our fan base continues to grow,” Grant said. “The boys enjoy playing in front of big crowds. Everyone has been very supportive.”
Grant grew up playing basketball, baseball and football in the McCully/Moiliili/Kapahulu area before arriving at Maryknoll to play for Coach Tony Sellitto. Expectations have been at the highest since the gym was built, and the Spartans are walking the walk.
“It is nice to be recognized as one of the top teams in the state all season. We have had some ups and downs like all teams do. Our coaching staff’s desire is to peak at the end, which we feel we are doing,” Grant said. “The boys have bought into their roles and our system, which has contributed to our success.”