Tiny AOP enjoys playing with big boys (extended version)

(Here’s the extended version of today’s feature story on Academy of Pacific’s basketball team.)

When Walter Marciel gets steamed up, his whole team can’t help but notice.

Marciel, the first-year boys basketball head coach at Academy of the Pacific, spends of his game nights patrolling the sideline in front of his bench. Between encouraging his Dolphins and barking instructions, Marciel also gets in some aerobic activity — none of it planned. It only happens when a big play or call happens, sometimes good, sometimes bad. It leaves Marciel, a husband and father of two grown sons, leaping higher than his creaky, middle-aged knees normally would allow.

Ask any Dolphin player and each has his own favorite recollection of their animated coach’s mannerisms. However, there’s nothing quite like the Marciel “hop,” a 90-degree turn with each leap until the series becomes a full 360. Senior guard Michael Urcia offers a demure, shortened version of the move, but freshman guard Kyan Furtado has every wiggle and explosive tremor down pat. When the Dolphins talk about their coach, they walk a fine line between good-naturedly teasing a friend and respecting an authority figure. Nobody volunteers to do the “hop” or any other impression, but they clearly relish the opportunity when asked.

“I’m loving every minute of it. The kids keep me on my toes,” Marciel said, noting a number of community service projects by his team. “We have 11 kids and every day, we come out, they learn something new. They want to learn on the court and off the court. We’re stressing, ‘Be a leader on and off the court.’ The life skills you learn as being part of a team, you can take that into your work or education.”

It’s all part of the joy in what has become a dream season for AOP, a program that languished in the lower end of Division II in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu for years. Now 6-2 in the tough Division I of the ILH (16-5 overall), the Dolphins have landed on the map of basketball fanatics statewide. They have the cache of being a little school that could, scoring two upset wins over powerhouse Kamehameha and a 6-3 record against Top 10 teams. A matchup with defending state champion and No. 1 ‘Iolani tonight will be a pivotal juncture in AOP’s ILH title hopes.

The Dolphins began to ascend in D-II a few years back when former UH-Hilo and Kalaheo standout Ryan Hogue became coach. Now the athletic director, Hogue is an active assistant coach to Marciel, and his role with Hawaii Select, a summer traveling team, was a big reason why AOP drew more student-athletes in recent years.

In the past season, the influx of new talent was remarkable. AOP already had a solid cast with returnee Micah Dunhour, a 6-foot-5 guard, along with speedy David Daniel and promising posts Sam Orcutt and Marshall Gourley. But the school’s small classroom sizes — there are 76 students in the entire high school — and growing reputation for one-on-one teaching appealed to several student-athletes looking for a different approach.

By hiring Marciel in May, who coached JV and assisted the varsity under Pete Smith and Chico Furtado at Kalaheo for more than a decade, AOP filled a key leadership role. By then, the pilgrimage to the Alewa Heights campus was already underway with transfers Urcia, Moritz Krume, Wilson MacLeod, Drew Viena and Kona Makaula.

Marciel points to his mentors at Kalaheo, as well as his experience watching his sons play at ‘Iolani, as cornerstones of learning.

“I learned a lot from watching what they do at ‘Iolani. The ‘One Team’ concept is awesome. The kids take that message home to their families,” he said, adding that AOP’s participation in ‘Iolani’s summer league was a major developmental step for the team.

AOP, relatively unknown to basketball fans at large, was known to some as a school where students went after being kicked out of larger, brand-name establishments. But that perception is changing; AOP is not necessarily a “special needs” school, as ASSETS is. AOP is where Tri Bourne, a former All-State volleyball player, left his mark. Bourne, whose father is a teacher at the school, qualified to attend USC and plays volleyball there.

By the end of last summer, the characteristics of AOP’s teaching style and system opened doors in manner that haven’t been seen since the days of Maryknoll’s dynasty under Tony Sellitto and University’s success under Bobby Au. Without a gym of their own, but relying on players who are dedicated to training in the weight room and on the court year-round, the Dolphins are in unknown territory by voyaging into Division I basketball.

Their talent, though, is plentiful.

Dunhour (13 points per game) arrived two years ago after completing his sophomore year at Honokaa. He was born on Oahu, but grew up on the outskirts of Waimea, near Kawaihae. It’s a place known more for its harbor and paddling regattas than basketball. Dunhour’s commute to Honokaa was a 25-mile jaunt each way. Coming to AOP, he said, was a matter of getting serious about his future.

“It’s a very diverse school, the kids there. Everybody’s different in their own way,” he said of his first visit to campus. “It’s forced me to grow up a little faster. There are a lot more opportunities here. I was kind of struggling with my grades back home. When you have so much friends, you’re lenient with grades and everything.”

It’s Dunhour’s gentle, but competitive nature that makes him one of the magnets on a roster loaded with new faces. When he hits the beach, a whole bunch of Dolphins head there, too. He stays with his great-grandmother in Palolo Valley, far from his ohana on the Big Island, and finds it easy to relate to the team’s upbeat ambassador, Krume. The 6-6 junior arrived from Remscheid, Germany at the end of summer.

“I’ve got good friends here on my basketball team. They make me a good time. I don’t miss home,” Krume said.

Krume, who won the slam dunk contest at the AOP Classic in December, is another gentle giant. That isn’t exactly what Marciel wanted from his best and biggest athlete, so Hogue, who is still in shape (and still big at 6-8), began a daily ritual of turning the Euro gunner into a physical post banger.

Krume has handled the pressure well. In just two months, he’s adapted and become a much stronger player under the basket, learning the nuances of leverage. Even with basketball at the forefront of his athletic life, all he can talk about — in fluent English, mind you — are his new friends.

The multi-skilled junior is one of several Dolphins who admitted to struggling in the usual educational system, preferring the small classes at AOP. They all enjoy talking about their teachers — imagine that — and the close interaction with them.

“When you need extra help, you can go to the teachers. It put my grades up for pre-calculus, for sure. In Germany, I had problems in school,” Krume said. “I really don’t want to go home to Germany after one year.”

MacLeod and Makaula (14 points per game), a 6-2 pure shooter, transferred from Kalaheo. Urcia was a standout at Christian Academy. They, along with most of their teammates, spend hours commuting every day; Urcia from Ewa Beach, and Makaula and MacLeod from Kailua.

Viena transferred from a D-I program, Saint Louis, and played immediately.

“Me and my parents felt it was the best move because of smaller classes, so it has more to offer me from an educational aspect,” Viena said. “I didn’t know we were moving to D-I until I came.”

Still, that’s where some criticism has pointed toward AOP from a small minority of basketball watchers. Is AOP bending league policy so transfers don’t have to sit out for a year?

The ILH transfer rules are in Section 5 of the league by-laws: A student who has represented an ILH school in Hawaii who transfers to a member school shall be ineligible to represent the school to which he/she transfers in any sport in which he/she participated at the former school, for one calendar year from the date of leaving the former school.”

A Hawaii High School Athletic Association exception to the rule pertains to two schools: Assets and AOP.

AOP’s athletic director Ryan Hogue said the school has had the exemption, which can apply to students who have special needs for any of several reasons, since 1961. He said families come to the school because “they want a tighter support system” or “personalized attention in a regular educational curriculum.”

Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) guidelines don’t permit AOP to talk about any student-athlete’s academics, but Hogue is frank about the program’s adherence to league rules.

“If people were to be unbiased, they’d know these are AOP kids,” said Hogue, who is studying for his master’s degree in Education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“Nothing’s changed at AOP. That’s a line, what’s best for a kid and his family. If they can go somewhere where they’re happy, what difference does it make to anybody else? If things aren’t working for them, they should have another option, and for some of them, sports keeps them going. They just happen to be good athletes.

“High school is a very difficult time for some people. If you’re stuck somewhere, it’s that kid’s whole life.”

Saturday morning practice is done — the Dolphins rent the gym at St. Andrew’s Priory — and players wait patiently as a reporter interviews them individually. Marciel, often demanding, sometimes jovial, but always fatherly, is with his players to the very end. Down the road, the Dolphins’ vision includes JV and intermediate teams, perhaps even girls basketball.

For now, Marciel admits this: he’s is having the time of his life. Sons Wally Jr., a University of Kansas pitcher, and Kela, a Weber State football player, have left the father with an empty nest, but he doesn’t mind too much. It’s that nest where he jumps and jumps.

The nest is small. It is full of joy.

See video interviews of the Dolphins and Coach Marciel at www.hawaiiprepworld.com.

Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser


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