Two weeks before the state championships, Sherice Ajifu took a stark look at her unbeaten Mid-Pacific Owls.
They had pulled out a 43-37 win over St. Francis to complete the ILH Division II girls basketball season. After rolling over D-III competition by margins of 54, 49, 55 and 39 points, and league D-II foes by 16, 12, 14, 25, 28 and 35 points, the six-point win over St. Francis was jarring.
It was the Owls’ first ILH girls basketball title in 21 years — MPI placed third in 2016 — but Ajifu was far from content. The coming two weeks would be more than just time to recuperate from nagging injuries and the fatigue of a regular season.
In fact, the D-III schedule may have afforded Ajifu and her staff a chance to play more reserves than usual, but the early, massive leads in those contests meant that she had her team slow the tempo.
“We needed to clean it up, find the balance and get into a rhythm. To get back to running the floor,” she said. “We had 11 practices in 16 days. They did everything we asked for. Our scout team had a some alumni who could simulate incredible pressure. Everyone was very focused.”
Those practices weren’t meant to ease up by any means.
“We got busted up by bigs, a lot of them were alumni,” senior guard Harley Simon said. “They’d body up on us and we really needed to use our speed on them.”
The Owls, in their second season at D-II since requesting to leave D-I, were phenomenal at the state championships. They followed a 12-0 regular season with an 82-30 win over Damien in the state quarterfinals and a 62-34 rout of OIA champion Kalani.
Then came Saturday’s showdown with perennial D-II state powerhouse Kamehameha-Hawaii. Ciera Kameehonua had the game of her life, drilling six 3-pointers and scoring 25 points, while Simon added 22 points in a 63-38 runaway win.
“I honestly don’t know how it happened,” said Kameehonua, who hustled for 10 rebounds. “I’ve been in a slump, but my coaches kept working with me.”
The confines of Blaisdell Arena, where the D-II tourney moved to after earlier rounds at high school gyms, were comfy enough for the junior.
“I felt good in warmups I got my shots up with help from my teammates. They’re never selfish,” she said.
There’s plenty of quickness and speed with versatile Brilie Kovaloff and Tylee-Kanani Wong. Kovaloff scored 23 points against Damien and 28 against Kalani. Center Paige Fahrni, who also plays soccer, is just a freshman.
The roster, comprised almost entirely of underclassmen, gave their fans plenty to look forward to next season. The Owls finished 17-3, beating Campbell, Kalaheo and Moanalua in preseason. They also lost 52-47 to eventual OIA D-I champion Farrington, as well as ILH powerhouses Maryknoll and Kamehameha.
Simon will graduate, but Kameehonua is the only junior. Wong and Kovaloff are two of the four sophomores on the roster. Fahrni, who stands roughly 6 feet tall, is one of four freshmen.
Now, though, is the time for celebration at a school where baseball has been king for decades. Mid-Pacific isn’t the largest of enrollments, but the jewel of the athletic program has often been on the diamond at Damon Field.
Two years ago, Ajifu, a former MPI guard when the Owls played in Division I. entered as a new head coach. The Owls were on their way into a D-II schedule, and morale in general was flat. Some players had opted to play other sports like soccer during the winter rather than endure a challenging, overwhelming gauntlet of girls basketball in ILH D-I.
Now, the vibe has changed. Even before the state tourney, Ajifu expressed optimism about the future of the Owls’ program.
“D-II has been good for us these past two seasons. It’s allowed the kids to believe in the system we’ve implemented and in themselves,” Ajifu texted. “But our goal has always been to get back to D-I.
“For us at MPI, our mail goal was ensuring the kids believed in themselves and their teammates. It was about creating a culture of ‘winning,’ — teaching the kids how to win and making them believe they could compete whenever they step onto the court.”
Getting interest and commitment at the middle-school level has been a priority.
“Both our soccer and basketball programs have been struggling with numbers, although soccer had a decent turnout this season,” she wrote. “We let our lower level kids play both (sports) to keep our intermediate numbers healthy, but didn’t gain anyone.”
Timing will be key. Ajifu wants to see the Owls compete in D-II as long as the time is right.
“With the ILH (D-I), we don’t have an integrated schedule (with D-II), so it’s tough,” she said.
Unlike the ILH, the OIA and BIIF have merged regular seasons for D-I and D-II basketball teams before splitting for the playoffs.
“It can get demoralizing and tough on morale when you don’t win, so we felt it was best to get the buy-in and then move back,” Ajifu wrote. “It’s a goal for the kids and for the staff to get back there and compete.”
She added that the roster sizes are still not quite robust: 10 on the varsity and six on JV.
“So we’ve got to do a good job of retaining the younger kids and keeping them in our program,” she wrote.
Nothing is written in stone. In fact, the success of the Owls girls hoops program is one thing, but the fairly low numbers are, perhaps, another big factor.
“We’ll talk it over at the end of the season when we evaluate, but I envision us back at D-I next season,” Ajifu wrote.
That would be heavenly news, maybe, for MPI’s girls soccer team, which could use the league exemption to play in D-II next season. The ILH is always happy to see more entries in D-I, to at least ensure more variety and volume of games in the schedule, as well as adding more strength to its ratio number for the HHSAA state tournament.
If Ajifu and her team have their way, the Owls will be entering that merciless gauntlet of ILH D-I play. There’s a reason why Punahou has more girls basketball state titles than any other school, 11, and Kamehameha has nine. ‘Iolani has four.
“It’s tough to compete with the big three. Especially when you compare facilities and cost of tuition. We’re somewhere in the middle,” Ajifu texted. “But MPI does attract a different student, I think, and winning helps. It’s human nature to want to be associated with a winning program. Our baseball team does it year in and year out, so we’ve got to find a way to do the same.
“Ultimately, our athletics director will have the final say, but he’s good about valuing our input. We’ll talk at the end of the season and make the best decision program-wide.”