When the Kamehameha Warriors hired Larry Park in the offseason to become their boys varsity head coach, old-timers and former Warriors were among the few who knew the name.
Park coached under legendary James Winchester in the 1990s, part of a coaching tree that includes former Kamehameha head coaches Jesse Nakanishi and Julian Nakanishi. Winchester’s strategic use of fullcourt defensive pressure was a key to the Warriors’ state championship season in 1992, and when Jesse Nakanishi was head coach later, Kamehameha won state crowns in ’09 and ’11.
The young, talented Warriors are 12-7 overall and a 1-3 mark in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu doesn’t reflect how dangerous they have become. Facing the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the state last week, Kamehameha led top-ranked Punahou in the fourth quarter before losing 64-54. Two nights later, they upset No. 2 Maryknoll in the Spartans’ gym, 34-33, on a last-second shot by Christmas Togiai, who is averaging more than 20 points per game. On Saturday, they pushed third-ranked ‘Iolani to the limit before falling 64-58.
Coach Park chatted with Hawaii Prep World on Sunday.
HPW: It has to be a very unique time of season for you and your staff, being so close to beating the top three teams in the state, taking one of them down. Is this the most parity you’ve seen in three decades of ILH basketball?
Park: Not necessarily from top to bottom, but I mentioned to the boys that three years ago there was that four-way tie for first place. We don’t know if Punahou or ‘Iolani pull away.
HPW: You have depth, and also a lot of youth to go with size and skill.
Park: We’re so young, dealing with injuries and illnesses. I haven’t had the same 10 guys all season. Hoku (Arias) hasn’t played in these regular-season games. He missed part of preseason, too. This week the boys really stepped up. They accepted the challenge
HPW: How is the team reacting to their recent effort? They have to be optimistic after what they did, even with two losses.
Park: They’re growing every week. Everything we’ve asked them to do, they’re responding. They boys have been so good. Other than the state tournament, maybe the OIA champ might have that (schedule) like that in a week, just not in that order.
HPW: One of the long-time basketball people I chatted with during preseason said it would be almost guaranteed that you’d eventually use that man-to-man fullcourt pressure with backside traps, the same thing that Kamehameha deployed during the years of Coach Winchester and Coach Nakanishi.
Park: We start our summer and preseason with those foundational concepts. Trap from the front, from behind the dribbler, we rotate, but based on personnel, on our rotation and our opponent. As our program develops these next few years, it’ll be more and more visible, maybe. We played man against Maryknoll and crafted our gameplan.
HPW: Yeah, the Maryknoll players said you went to a zone and that threw them off. But I’m looking forward to seeing your team use that unpredictable fullcourt pressure. It was amazing to see during the last title years.
Park: That pressure man-to-man defense is kind of my foundation, but I do want to be versatile. We have a zone press. We’ll flip to that for three or four possessions against both Maryknoll and ‘Iolani. Brandon Dumlao, our assistant coach, calls a great game mixing it up. We’re growing as a coaching staff, coordinating that in-game, are we going to switch defense, sub guys in.
HPW: When do you expect Hoku to return?
Park: Hoku, we’re not sure when he comes back, and the Poly Bowl (football) is this week.
HPW: It was intriguing to see your team in preseason, sometimes using your big football linemen Lokahi Pauole and Bailey Lee as a kind of twin-tower effect, working the posts. Very old-school, the ball movement gave you plenty of open 3-point looks.
Park: I think Lokahi has had some big games for us, but he really also brings great leadership. We’re so happy he’s with us filing that role. He’s the only senior who played last night. That maturity and leadership that he brings every day, that’s huge. Our other starting post, Bailey, is high-IQ basketball player, and his game is versatile. Last night, he has a hustle play under the basket for one of our buckets, a high-low entry pass to Lokahi.
HPW: Christmas is having a strong season. He’s just too big and explosive for most point guards, and he can post up, too. Great motor.
Park: Chris does everything. He’s such a competitor. I asked him, ‘How’s the body?’ ‘Good.’ He gives everything you ask.
HPW: And he was the starting quarterback in football. He’s a senior, right?
Park: No, he’s just a junior.
Park: We also have Preston Ponteras and Paliku Kamaka. Preston gets double digits in some games and handles the ball to take some of the load off Chris. Paliku is a sophomore who makes a few and misses a few, but to accept that responsibility to shoot it, that’s great for us. He doesn’t shy away from the moment.
HPW: Paliku is a deadly shooter. He was lights-out sometimes in preseason. I imagine ILH teams will gameplan for him, too. What’s it been like coaching a new team?
Park: From the beginning, they’ve really tried to understand what we were telling them all the way back to Kalani at the McKinley tournament. One of the things I said was, ‘Share the ball, move the ball to the open guy.’ The very first possession, Bailey took the post, threw to Chris at the top because he was doubled, and he drove and passed to Lokahi for the layup.
HPW: Yes, the chemistry is there, and now they’ve starting to peak.
Park: They’re sticking together, playing together and improving each week.
HPW: Let’s go back to Coach Winchester. What are other elements that you absorbed from coaching on his staff?
Park: The defensive concepts, our foundation, there’s some of that that pops into our practice plan. Same thing with Jesse Nakanishi, five guys got to be on a string. All of that experience with different guys comes in at time. How we talk to the kids before and after the game, to get them ready or enjoy a big win or battle through a tough loss, it’s tapping into all those experiences.
HPW: It was three games last week, incredibly challenging, and three more difficult
games this week. This is the heart of the ILH gauntlet.
Park: I”m trying to figure out how we’re going to get ready. We kind of have a theme every week. We have three tough teams again. We have tomorrow (Monday) to get ready. St. Francis is an explosive offense, a different challenge.