They are who they thought they were.
The rest of the OIA, and the state, knows the Kaimuki Bulldogs now. A few months ago, nobody outside of longtime girls basketball coach Mona Fa‘asoa, her staff, players and the most tightly-knit insiders knew what this season’s Bulldogs were capable of.
Oh, there was hope. Victoria Kintz, the senior returnee with eye-popping handles, scoring ability and a basketball IQ among the elite. (And a scholarship to Holy Names University.) A few more returnees who showed flashes of excellence last year. But without consistent post scoring or a whole lot of height and length (re: Maryknoll), what could the Bulldogs really do?
Fa‘asoa’s team put a seal of success on the regular season Wednesday, traveling out to Kahuku and departing with a 47-39 victory. At 8-1, Kaimuki has done its part. After a seemingly endless struggle in preseason — one of the roughest schedules in the state — Fa‘asoa’s squad has won in mostly convincing fashion against OIA East opponents.
Every win so far has been by at least eight points, and the one loss at home against Moanalua (38-37) four days before the Kahuku showdown probably did as much good as harm. The ‘Dogs went from driver’s seat to borderline third place — and no first-round bye in the playoffs — back into the front of the bus with the win at Kahuku. By dropping Kahuku to 6-3, Kaimuki sealed a at least second place in the Division I East standings. The first-round bye is theirs.
The other team at the top, Farrington, finished regular-season play 9-1. Kaimuki beat the Lady Governors 50-35 on Dec. 15, which means the Bulldogs have the tiebreaker advantage and would get the higher seed with a win over a tough Kalani squad tonight.
“The bye is important so our kids can rest. We’ve got bumps and bruises and we’re not very big,” Fa‘asoa said on Wednesday as the team departed from Kahuku. “We have good kids. This win lets them know how that hard work pays off.”
The Bulldogs aren’t just an elite team in the OIA who put up some eye-popping numbers — they shot 10-for-24 from 3-point range against Kahuku. The eye test is different from watching Kahuku or Leilehua, Radford or Mililani. They are, with speedy 5-foot-1 guard Sirena Titer (15 points, four treys, three assists, three steals against Kahuku) and 5-4 Sonia Palik (12 points with three treys, nine rebounds, four assists) and 5-7 sharpshooter Kaelyn Espinda, a team of point guards who also have shooting-guard skills.
The pregame look might confuse some spectators. The size is mostly small. Even tiny. But the entire team is a fast, unending hustle machine from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Having quality depth at guard has been extremely valuable. It has freed Kintz to do more of the blue-collar work: handling the ball as the primary in clock-management mode, crashing the boards on both ends, operating as the hub in the high post against zone defenses. Kaimuki’s ball movement has been superior, selfless and precise. That’s how 24 open 3-point attempts happen.
The story of OIA basketball, going back to the 1960s and ‘70s when football coaches often filled in as basketball referees, has always been about shooting. Or the lack thereof. Trace back to old team statistics and close to half (or more) of the league shot less than 50 percent from the free-throw line. The league has always been about multiple-sport athletes while the ILH was often about specialization. The default defense of that era, and still today: 2-3 zone. A shooter’s delight.
The OIA has been chock full of athletic kids with a sprinkling of clinic and club players, while the ILH community was and still is far more engaged in year-round training. At Kaimuki, however, Fa‘asoa has often kept the gym doors open in the summer. If her players want to excel, the opportunity to put in reps and invest in the future is there. This, not entirely unlike ‘Iolani and its smallish roster, is what basketball is today. The giants with PG skills will always be legendary. But for most teams, it comes down to work ethic in the offseason, regardless of specialization or multiple sports. How important is skill? As always, it is the separator.
The will comes from Fa‘asoa, who has not lost a bit of edge in all these years, but the skill and sweat equity come from her Bulldogs. What’s probably just as interesting is that there are just three seniors on the team. Titer is a junior. Palik and Espinda are sophomores. Another budding shooter, Peka Scott, is just a junior.
All that skill, passing, 3-point bombing and tough-nosed zone defense has taken the Bulldogs this far. Among the OIA’s D-I contenders, they will be the smallest competitor. But history has shown that it is generally impossible to stop a team with four 3-point gunners on the floor at all times. Defenses will have to pick their poison: man up and give up drives through the lane, or zone and hope Kaimuki misses.
For Kaimuki, with an enrollment of less than 800, the return to D-I has brought the spotlight back to ‘Dog heaven.