Very little has changed for Bobbie Awa in the 16 years since she became the girls basketball coach at her alma mater.
The year 2001 was an oddity for students. The teachers’ strike shortened many things, including the seasons of student-athletes. But it was the beginning for Awa in her first varsity head coach after nearly a decade of starting and coaching the Kona Stingrays club with husband Donald. In ’03, with many of those original Stingrays — including niece Jessica Hanato — at Konawaena High School, the Wildcats won their first girls basketball state championship.
Fourteen years later, Awa and her staff have guided the program to a total of eight state titles, all at the Division I level. This time, there’s a a new twist: a three-peat, which had never been done by the Wildcats. A thrilling 53-48 win over powerhouse Maryknoll on Saturday closed another chapter in an illustrious book — more like encyclopedia — that no one saw coming back in ’01.
No other coach in Hawaii girls basketball history has won as many state titles. Only one other school, Punahou, has won more as a program: 11. Konawaena, without the resources, history and enrollment of the Sons (and Daughters) of Oahu, has continually confounded doubters, as Awa calls them. In her blue jeans and slippers, without the vocal volume of many of her peers, and often with a roster small in numbers and size — eight Wildcats suited up for the title game Saturday — few other coaches in any sport have created a legacy like Awa’s.
Her daughter, Dawnyelle, is now co-head coach since returning from a playing career at Washington State. Hanato, one of the versatile, tough-nosed all-state players from the first state-title team, has been an assistant coach for years. Another assistant, Kevin Yamasaki, has also been part of the Stingrays and Wildcats staffs for years since his daughter’s playing days.
Hanato says this is the hardest road the program has had to take to the championship mountaintop. Awa doesn’t disagree, but with such a young group, including freshman center Caiyle Kaupu — sister of former standout Courtney Kaupu — it was clear from preseason that this team needed time to develop. The drop-off since the graduation of three-time All-State player of the year Chanelle Molina was significant.
“Every one is different,” Awa said of the eight crowns. “So many people had doubts this year. I think that made our girls stronger. We worked a little bit harder. It’s just amazing. I’m excited.”
Developing skills and increase basketball IQ has been a way of life at Konawaena, and the roles that young Wildcats played — Kaupu with 11 points and nine rebounds, sophomore Tanniya Uchida with two game-changing 3-pointers in the second half — were no surprise to Awa.
She had faith in her team, as always, from day one. The rest of the state, mostly not so much belief in this year’s Wildcats early on. Yet, what Awa is more proud of is the way they continued to focus while keeping one of their JV players in the circle.
McKella Akana, a freshman, was diagnosed with lymphoma late in the season.
“We’ve gone through a lot this season. I’m so proud of these girls. These green ribbons we wear are for ‘Kella,” Awa said. “She’s in Kapiolani (Medical Center for Women and Children).”
The team visited her on Monday.
“We dedicated this game, this whole season to her. She’s getting better. The chemo is starting,” guard Mikayla Tablit said.
“The day before the playoffs back home, she already had the lump, she took the biopsy,” Awa said. “She got the results and flew up here (Honolulu) the next day. It’s really tough. We dedicated the state tournament to her. The girls had her in their thoughts all night. They wanted to win this for ‘Kella.”
In a game that hinged young reserves for each team, Sisilia Kaufusi gave Maryknoll a major lift with five points in the second quarter. With the game seemingly in the balance on every possession of the second half, Uchida did a little more than knock down those two massive trifectas.
With Maryknoll picking its spots with a potentially lethal fullcourt press, Uchida was in the backcourt when she received a skip pass, and within one dribble, she fired a left-handed pass to midcourt, where Cherilyn Molina then pushed to the rim and fed Kaupu for a layup. That gave Konawaena a 44-42 lead with 4:08 left.
Prior to that, the Spartans left her alone on both of her 3-point shots.
“We want that,” Maryknoll coach Chico Furtado said, noting that Uchida should have been cold coming off the bench. “Give her credit for making those shots.”
Uchida, generously listed at 5-2, shocked a lot of watchers.
“If it’s there, I’ll take it,” she said of her big shots.
Kaupu and Mahie Ka‘awa (four rebounds, two steals) were key on defense, giving senior Celena Jane Molina big support against Maryknoll’s tall, athletic front line. Ka‘awa hustled for four rebounds, including three on the offensive glass. In all, the Wildcats pulled down a whopping 11 offensive rebounds and got the edge on the boards in total, 28-25.
Kaupu got rattled some during that tense fourth quarter as Konawaena worked the clock with a small lead against Maryknoll’s halfcourt pressure. Once Kaupu settled in and squared up to the basket from the high post, she dished two crucial assists for buckets.
“Coach said to shake it off,” Celena Jane Molina said.
It was, as Furtado noted, a matter of the little things being big. Maryknoll shot 10-for-19 from the foul line while Konawaena was 16-for-24.
The Wildcats have rules about free throws at practice. Much of their conditioning is tied in to whether they individually hit two in a row, but the one that stands out is this: nobody goes home unless she makes 10 free throws in a row.
Kaupu was a key part of that game within a game, too, hitting three free throws in the final 15 seconds. She had no fear going up against Maryknoll’s shot-blocking, 6-2 junior center, Isabella Cravens.
Now, the Lady Spartans will have another offseason to build higher, another stretch of what-could’ve-been after another title-game loss to Konawaena. The good news is that nearly the entire roster will return next season. The bad news? Konawaena will lose Ka‘awa and Celena Jane Molina to graduation — she has a scholarship offer from Washington State — but the Wildcats will have everyone else back.
Konawaena-Maryknoll has been epic enough after two championship-game episodes to end the past two seasons. A third battle in the ’18 finals would probably be most fitting. Every time Maryknoll raises the bar, House Awa matches and surpasses. Epic has rarely been so unified and faithful.