It was a chance encounter, running into Mid-Pacific boys basketball coach Ryan Hirata at the Kaiser-Kailua showdown last Thursday.
He was merely a spectator, taking in the game for multiple reasons, I’m guessing. Hirata, a former state champion player at ‘Iolani, may have been there in support of another Raider state champion, Kaiser assistant coach Kainoa Scheer. Or he may have been gathering notes on a potential postseason foe.
Let that sink in. Mid-Pacific in the state basketball tournament against, maybe, Kaiser or Kailua. It wasn’t so long ago that the concept of the Owls playing in a state basketball tourney was far-fetched, not so much because they hadn’t been a decent team. No, playing in the gauntlet of the ILH is, what, 95 percent of the reason why any competitive program gets its light of hope snuffed out during the league playoffs.
This year is certainly no different. In fact, this year’s ILH is as rough from top to bottom as it has been in years. Why? THERE IS NO BOTTOM.
Mid-Pacific may have been considered somewhat of the bottom of the league. The Owls’ resume isn’t decorated with a history of league hoop titles. But, but, but… Hirata and his staff and instilled a mentality of fundamental basketball. The core of the program mirrors Hirata, who was a clutch shooting guard in his playing days. Tough as nails, physically stronger than just about everyone at his position.
At Mid-Pacific, Hirata’s team has endured myriad injuries. And yet, they upset then-No. 2 ranked Kaiser even as big man Justin Daise sat out with an injury.
Hirata wasn’t looking for any added attention as he sat there watching warmups at Kailua 24 hours later. But he was accommodating to one of the few observers who has seen him since the days of open gym at Kaimuki Community Park gym, when a couple of eighth graders launched — and consistently hit — rainbow NBA 3-pointers over old-timers and active college players alike.
“I’m just really proud of the kids. The school and alumni are proud. You walk around campus and people say, ‘Congratulations.’ I get e-mails from faculty members,” he said. “Punahou is a great program. They were deserving to be No. 1. I would’ve voted them No. 1.”
Under his watch, players teetering on the brink have blossomed into elite contributors. But more than anything, a healthy roster has brought balance to the Owl force.
“Justin’s as healthy as he’s ever been in two years. Playing football helped him,” Hirata said. “The best part about that kid is he’s just an outstanding young man. A great kid. Justin is very composed, and he battled through fatigue.”
Since the win over Kaiser, the Owls ransacked the top-ranked Punahou Buffanblu last Wednesday, 56-54, at Mills Gymnasium. Daise scored 26 points in the win, which I believe is a career-high. They’ve since jumped into the Star-Advertiser Top 10, and added a 35-32 win over No. 5 Maryknoll on the road.
Normally, a ballot by this pupule hoops watcher is based mostly on head-to-head results and the overall strength of schedule. Resume stuff. But watching MPI against Kaiser rang bells in my head that sounded right through my normal process. Voting for the Owls has been the norm for me since, even with their early-preseason losses to non-ranked teams. Now is now for the Owls. They were rising. They have risen.
Now what? Everywhere I go, basketball fans ask me about Mid-Pacific and the brutally fun battlegrounds of ILH boys hoops. I know nothing, just this: Bottom’s up this season, and 7-5 — or even 4-8 — may be enough to make the state tourney.