If Konawaena is part of a statewide game of thrones, House Awa has both a formidable castle and a moat filled with ferocious, hungry creatures.
Few, if any, ever want to leave the dynastic program, which has won seven of the last 13 girls basketball Division I state crowns. Konawaena, with its modest enrollment (roughly 800 students), has plenty of talent returning from last year’s back-to-back championship squad with All-State guards Cherilyn Molina and Mikayla Tablit, along with promising young players — Caiyle Kaupu, Mahie Ka‘awa, Tanniya Uchida and Tayvia Cabatbat — who emerged at the state tourney last February. But in recent seasons, the trend toward outlying roundballers opting to move to South Kona to play for Coach Bobbie Awa has grown.
> Lia Galdeira grew up in Waimea, but moved to Kealakekua and became the All-State player of the year as Konawaena won three state titles (2009, ’11 and ’12) in a four-year span. She went on to star at Washington State along with Wildcat teammate Dawnyelle Awa and is now playing professional ball in Europe. Konawaena went 110-8 during Galdeira and Awa’s prep careers.
> In ’14, three Lahainaluna seniors — sisters Lindsay Bates and Taylor Bates, and Aloha Salem — moved to the Big Island and became contributors to the Wildcats’ state title run.
Off-islanders landing in Kealakekua, where horses and cows seem to outnumber humans, is sort of becoming the norm. This doesn’t even touch the number of players who left their Big Island districts after middle school to attend Konawaena entering ninth grade. The allure, the atmosphere, the support from Awa and the community — the stream of players who go on to play at the college level is unparalleled. This goes back to the late ‘90s as Kealakehe was about to open its doors. One parent told me that he would send his son to Konawaena rather than the nearby new high school. Just a personal decision, he said, and he wasn’t and still isn’t alone. Some folks feel better about sending their children to a smaller school with, in their opinions, fewer distractions and better college opportunities.
A couple of years ago, a rumor started about then-Punahou standout forward/center Tyra Moe possibly transferring to Konawaena. That never happened, and Moe finished her standout career with the Buffanblu.
On the Big Island, Dragons do change sides, both in fantasy TV shows and real life. Kawena Kaohimanu, considered to be Honokaa’s top player last season, has already transferred to Konawaena this fall. Unlike the Oahu Interscholastic Association, the Big Island Interscholastic Federation permits student-athletes to play after transferring, provided the physical move is legitimate. The OIA adopted a new rule in 2015 that requires players to sit out one year in the specific sport after transferring from public school to public school. The league has listened to appeals and permitted some exceptions, but by and large, the mass transferring of previous years has diminished.
There had been some murkiness regarding Kaohimanu: would she be eligible to play at the state tourney should Konawaena qualify? Clarification came from HHSAA Executive Director Chris Chun, who noted that it is about physical residency.
“There would need to be a legal change of residence. In most cases, that involves the parents moving or appointing a legal guardian,” Chun said. “(If the family moves), then it’s a non-issue.”
Another player currently in middle school is also expected to transfer from the Honokaa district to Konawaena. One of her parents recently transferred to a job in Kona. That’s the aura of Konawaena and Coach Awa.
The kicker is this: a rumor about Maryknoll senior Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole moving to Kona is stirring around. The athletic 5-foot-10 wing has been a key part of the Spartans’ back-to-back ILH D-I championships. Kamakawiwo‘ole played with Awa’s club team, Kona Stingrays, in a recent tournament in Hilo last week.
Kamamakawiwo‘ole squashed the rumor on Thursday.
“No, I’m staying at Maryknoll,” she texted.
Awa doesn’t know about any of the rumors.
“I haven’t heard about Kamalu,” she said. “I did not hear of her transferring. I’m sure she’s in school at Maryknoll.”
Even without the influx of new players, Konawaena has always found ways to compete at the highest level, whether the roster was deep or not. Often, it has been eight or nine players — minuscule by today’s standards — but for the Wildcats, it’s more than a game. Excellence in the classroom, on the hardwood, is a way of life.