The time is right, and Kihei Kapeliela is ready.
The former Kohala Cowboy player is the new varsity boys basketball head coach, taking over the reins from longtime coach Donn Fernandez, who retired recently. Kapeliela was a junior varsity head coach and varsity assistant for 11 years under Fernandez.
Expectations for a small school with a strong basketball tradition are high. All but two of last year’s varsity players will return from a team that was 13-5 and reached the state tourney despite having seven players who were freshmen and sophomores. The Cowboys defeated D-I programs Hilo and Konawaena, lost to Waiakea and eventual BIIF D-II champion Hawaii Prep.
The roster also includes some second-generation hoopsters whose fathers were part of the 1990s run of success. Back then, there was no Division II, but the running Cowboys gave the bigger schools — Hilo, Waiakea, Konawaena — more than enough competition.
Kapeliela played for Roland Perez and Earl Viloria. Joe Mattos coached before Kapeliela was on the varsity, and returned later.
“Coach Donn and Coach James (Marquez) pretty much taught me everything. When I first started coaching, I thought I knew a lot, but I didn’t. The only way I know is their style, helping the kids become better people instead of just better basketball players,” said Kapeliela, who was in Honolulu on Monday.
He accompanied his father, Boonda, who was here to undergo a medical procedure.
Oshen Cazimero, a BIIF D-II co-player of the year as a freshman last season, is among the long list of returnees. Koby Agbayani is another potential four-year letterman, as is La‘akea Kauka, a 6-foot-1 wing. He is the son of Lawrence Kauka, one of the most athletic and productive scorers in school history. Cazimero, Agbayani and Kauka are sophomores.
The junior returnees are cousinsMolonai Emeliano and Moses Emeliano, and Jeffrey Francisco. Molonai is a son of Kalei Emeliano and Moses is a son of Keone Emeliano. Brothers Kalei and Keone Emeliano, an all-BIIF forward and player of the year, respectively, were part of the early ‘90s Cowboys run-and-gun squads that scored often scored in the 80s against the BIIF’s best.
The lone senior returnee is Elijah Antonio.
The generational ties are along the lines of coaching ties. Cazimero’s father, Reeve, was a blur-quick point guard for the Cowboys who now coaches boys and girls basketball at the youth level. Lawrence Kauka also coaches with Cazimero and Kapeliela for NSP, the longtime club team from Kohala district.
“We’ve got a lot of young talent for the next few years, even the JV program. We’ve got about nine freshmen coming up,” Kapeliela said. “All the way down to Lawrence’s kids, they’re sixth to eighth grade, coming up the feeder program.
The Cowboys, via NSP, have accumulated plenty of offseason experience. They teamed up with a Kailua-Kona club Shut-D — coached by former Kohala point guard and current Kealakehe varsity head coach Benny Alcoran — in off-island and mainland tournaments.
“We’ve always been small. Coach Donn always had this saying. You’ve got two choices. Grow or get faster. So we had to get faster. It’s the only way I know how to coach. Defense is first. Defense is everything. I’m excited. Lot of pressure. Big shoes to fill, but I’m ready.
With the school gym renovated and finally open again, the Cowboys are rejuvenated.
“Our fans always expect a lot. The fans at Kohala are the best. When we have a good team, we have a big (Hisaoka) gym, the gym is packed. When we go to states, it’s like we’re playing at home. A lot of black and gold in the crowd. Real supportive. That’s why being the coach of Kohala basketball is a lot of pressure, but I’m ready. I’m ready to compete for the championship.”
The cream of the crop in BIIF D-I was surprised by Kohala last season.
“Last year we caught a lot of people by surprise having a lot of freshmen and sophomores. There’s a lot of senior-heavy teams this year. Kamehameha-Hawaii. Hilo’s pretty young, but they’ve got a good team,” Kapeliela said. “Shesley Martinez, Wes’ son, transferred back to Hilo. Waiakea is good, too. I know we’re competing in Division II, but we want to win.”
The round-robin schedule allows all teams, D-I and D-II to meet each other at least once in the regular season. Kapeliela expects Hawaii Prep to make a strong defense of its BIIF D-II title.
“They’re bringing in a few kids from overseas. I’m not sure. I think one graduated and I heard the other tall kid left. They’re tough. They’ve got a couple of local kids who are tough,” he said.
Among them is an NSP player, Javan Perez.
“(Hawaii Prep) has Javan, the Walker boys (Kelsen-Jaye and Tre). They’ve got athletes over there and great coaching,” Kapeliela said.
Honokaa lost a strong senior class to graduation, but will compete hard.
“Honokaa’s young. You never know. Jayme (Carvalho) is a great coach. He brings out the best in them,” Kapeliela said. “Pahoa has one really good player, Damon Romero. About 6-2 with an outside game. He could be playing at the next level.”
Ka‘u, long dormant, is starting to benefit from the year-round training of a feeder club, Hokulele.
“What Ravel (Kaupu) is doing down there with the club, I give them a lot of credit,” Kapeliela said.
He also expects a major battle with Konawaena.
“Konawaena’s got a big team. Donny (Awa) is a great coach. If they have a weakness, he can hide it. They’ve got at least three kids, 6-3 to 6-4. They’re going to be right there,” Kapeliela said.
“Kealakehe, Benny has a lot of good athletes. He’s doing good with that program,” he added. “You never know. The calls, anything can happen, foul trouble. It’s wide open, I think.”