The shining, golden basketball will always be close by for Maryknoll coach Kelly Grant.
“This is going in my office. I have one cabinet where I keep all my important trophies. This is another one,” Grant said of the trophy, a well-earned keepsake after the Spartans’ 60-35 win over No. 9 Kamehameha on Saturday in the title game of the inaugural Kaimuki Invitational.
Balanced scoring made No. 4 Maryknoll (11-0) a major challenge for the young Warriors. Seniors Kala‘i Akaka (11 points), Nikko Robben (11) and Marcus Tobin (10) led the attack. Kamehameha (8-3) got 10 points from senior Christmas Togiai, who had very little space to work with against an experienced Spartan lineup. In 10 earlier preseason games, Kamehameha scored at least 57 points eight times. The 35-point output was their lowest of the season.
Grant led Kaimuki to a state championship in 2007 before returning to his alma mater, Maryknoll. When Kaimuki coach Greydon Espinda inquired with Grant about participating in the new tourney, the Spartans were ready.
“When Greydon asked me to come and play, I didn’t think twice about coming over here. All my friends are here,” Grant said.
The Spartans lost an elite backcourt to graduation, but their core of tall, tough wings and posts returned. They contested just about every shot attempt by Kamehameha
“We spend so much time practicing our defense. Our league (ILH), there’s so much diversity. You’ve got Christmas on this team (Kamehameha). You’ve got Kameron (Ng) playing for St. Francis. You’ve got (Colin Ramos) from Mid-Pac. You’ve got two or three guys from Saint Louis,” Grant said. “So we’re not one that’s going to play a certain style of defense. We’re diversified in how we defend.”
Grant also pointed to Kamehameha’s first-year head coach Larry Park, a former longtime assistant, as a crafty tactician.
“I know Kamehameha wasn’t showing all their cards today, as we were. I don’t think once (today) did they come and double-team from the back. I know that’s (Coach Larry) Park’s M.O. He’s a disciple of Winchester.”
James Winchester led Kamehameha’s program to a state title in 1992. One of his proteges, Jesse Nakanishi, guided the Warriors to state crowns in ’09 and ’11 with plenty of that unpredictable backcourt trapping out of man-to-man defense.
The Warriors also had some key contributors sidelined by injury.
“They’re going to be formidable. They’ve just got to mesh with their new coach and coaching staff,” Grant said. “They’re going to win some games.”
The Spartans are a physically stronger team this season. Robben covered Togiai, and the Spartans didn’t allow sophomore sharpshooter Paliko Kamaka very many open looks.
“Nikko is a pretty solid defender. He dedicated himself in the weight room. He put on 20 pounds. He’s grown to 6-4 and he’s got some long arms,” Grant said. “Whenever we play a big guard that’s physical to the basket, we’ll use Nikko on him.”
The length of other key players like Tobin, at 6-7, and 6-3 point guard Makoto Kamata was always there, but they’ve taken their games to a new level after training for two weeks with Japan’s junior national team, competing with 19-under players.
“Marcus is a good fitness guy. He loves being in the weight room. Makoto, there was a big transformation when he came back. The junior national coach said, if you want to have any opportunity to play on our national team, you have to put on weight, so instantly when he came back, he was spending all his time in the weight room,” Grant said. “It’s real easy to keep everybody in the weight room when your captains and the guys your players look up to are pushing the weight and working hard.”
All 10 varsity and 12 JV players, Grant added, worked out in the weight room diligently. That includes freshman Sage Tolentino, the 6-foot-8 center with a nice shooting stroke. Instead of deploying him on the JV team, Grant has Tolentino on the varsity, working against Tobin and the rest of the seasoned Spartans.
“His dad, Grant Tolentino, played volleyball for UH. I told him, every day with Sage working against Marcus at practice, Marcus taking him under his wing, making sure he’s doing the right things all the time. we make sure we have one person always having attention on this kid. The sky’s the limit for this guy. I honestly believe he’s Division I material,” Grant said.
Mililani gave the Spartans a scare in the semifinal round, when Maryknoll escaped with a 47-46 win.
“We weren’t playing real well the last two or three games. Very lethargic on defense. When we play solid defense and we get stops, it leads to transition layups and looks. If they other team is scoring baskets, then they set up the press, we’ve got to run offenses. We didn’t run offense today. We just ran pick and weave the whole game,” Grant said.
The experienced group, including one of the state’s premier 1-through-5 defenders, Parker Grant, could turn out to be one of the best defensive teams in the islands.
“They have a great understanding of how to play correct defense. Now they’re playing a lot of minutes and there’s a long stretch where they have to have good conditioning and also play good defense, and today was the first day that we did it,” Grant said.