Forty wins and a state championship look better than good on the basketball resume.
What can Kalaheo possibly do to top that next year? Coach Alika Smith’s squad went 40-6 overall this year, and long before it was news that the Mustangs were going to rock the Oahu Interscholastic Association, they were doing damage in offseason leagues.
Josh Ko, the Division II state tournament’s most outstanding player, was prolific in the summer and fall leagues while playing for his dad on a remarkable team called the “Force.” Shem Sukumaran was right there, learning all of Ko’s nuances as a passer and playmaker.
Once the ‘Stangs — as it reads on Kalaheo’s home and away jerseys — took the floor together with 6-foot-6 Nainoa Frank, 6-4 Jordyn Reindollar and 6-1 Derick Morgan, it was one of the most formidable starting fives in the islands.
They went on to climb over D-I programs in the OIA Red East, losing only to eventual D-I state runner-up Kahuku during the regular season. So much for divisional designations, particularly for Kalaheo, which was stuck in D-II despite a long history of championships under Smith’s father, the late Pete Smith.
But this team proved in December, with a win over then-No. 1 Kamehameha, that it was a force to be reckoned with — pun intended. Through the playoffs and a loss to McKinley, then the run to OIA White and state titles, Kalaheo continued to morph from an offensively potent team to a lockdown bunch with a severe distaste for opposing scorers.
“All of us are capable of scoring, but defense is what really turned us around,” Ko said.
Defense wins championships, as Kalaheo did with a 57-42 win over McKinley on Saturday. Morgan evolved and became a premier stopper, which he did by limiting McKinley’s Alex Ironside to 14 points on 2-for-10 shooting.
“Derick had to shut down Ironside. Shem did it too when Derick was in foul trouble,” Ko said.
Morgan’s even-keeled intensity works in his favor.
“I listened to what coach said. I’ve always depended on my defense, to make sure my guy scores less than he usually does,” Morgan said, recalling a first-half shove from Ironside, who is normally mild-mannered and scoring in large numbers against most foes.
“It felt good to know he was frustrated,” Morgan said. “I made sure I took away his left hand.”
All that work landed Morgan a different role in the second and third quarters after he picked up three fouls. Smith moved Sukumaran into the role, and the 6-3 junior relished it.
“I told coach and Derick, ‘I’ll guard him. Just tell me when you’re ready to take him back.’ He said, ‘Fourth quarter.’ I gave (Ironside) a little too much space and he hit a 3 in my face,” Sukumaran said. “Derick is faster and better at on-ball defense.”
Sukumaran’s older brother, Josiah, starred for ‘Iolani last year, helping the Raiders reach the state tourney. Shem has plenty of his brother’s versatility and agility as a defender. Working with Morgan to create a defensive reputation, though, has been a work of pure desire.
“Alex is like the whole team. He’s deceptively quick with his stutter step and fakes. He can go off any time,” Sukumaran said, noting that the Tigers and Mustangs played four previous times. “The thing is we both just take it as a challenge to get in a scorer’s head,” he said. “To make sure he has his worst game.”
As insistent as they were defensively, the offense was more of a slow, churning fire that got hotter with time. The tempo worked in Kalaheo’s favor, all the better to save the legs of the seven players in Smith’s rotation — especially over a 46-game schedule.
“The (preseason) tournaments really helped us,” Ko said. “If it wasn’t for Coach Alika getting us into the tournaments, I don’t think our chemistry would’ve been as good. Coach said practice doesn’t really give you game experience.”
So how do they top this? With Frank — a Junior Olympic volleyball player — Ko, Morgan and Sukumaran all juniors, Kalaheo is an early favorite to contend for the OIA title, this time probably in the Red (D-I) Conference. The program’s JV team had a plus-.500 record, Ko noted, so the varsity is likely to move up when the league resets designations this offseason.
“Hopefully, we’ll move up and compete with the best teams like Punahou, Kamehameha and AOP,” Ko said.
Morgan is already looking forward to a move up.
“The Red has tough teams, but we’ll work hard in the offseason,” he said. “Our chemistry helps us a little more than most teams.”
Sukumaran has yet to let go of that little edge, the one that drives him harder even after winning a D-II crown.
“No one thought we’d be there. We were the underdogs,” he said. “If everyone gets better and we stay together, we could make a really good run next season. The chemistry is there.”
So is the intensity, courtesy of Smith, a mild-mannered gentleman off the court, but sometimes fiery on it. Once his players knew that fire was all about commitment and trust in one another, they realized he was simply extracting their best effort.
That made the post-game celebration on Saturday unique, to say the least. Sukumaran and Ko planned to jump on their coach after the buzzer, but Ko went another direction, toward Morgan.
“Josh didn’t follow through. I jumped on coach and he didn’t let me go,” Sukumaran said.
That was followed immediately by the team’s arm-in-arm huddle at midcourt, including the coaching staff.
“Coach did it with us once in pregame before the semis,” Sukumaran said.
Maybe there will be more midcourt celebrations for Smith and his ‘Stangs in the near future. After all, the force seems to be with them.
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser