In this edition of Hoopbook, a view of top underclassmen and their teams for the 2019-20 season. It’s going to be a very intriguing campaign thanks to a talented group of juniors, sophomores and freshmen across the islands.
On paper, the ‘Iolani Raiders had all the makings of a highly-entertaining show of skilled performers, and this goes back months. Years. Decades.
But someone reading this description far from the islands might mistake this group of Raiders perhaps 1) a dancing troupe, 2) a circus act, and/or 3) a traveling musical. The Raiders have been much more, but when Konawaena, Punahou, even Kamehameha stand in the way for 23 years, the one team in Moiliili tends to be forgotten when it comes to great girls basketball programs locally, let alone nationwide.
Add “Champion” as an adjective and it all crystalizes into one shiny, piercing piece of evidence that perpetual motion and constant communication matter in this part of the universe. Raiders coach Dean Young saw it come long ago. Their heart-stopping 52-49 victory over Kamehameha on Saturday night for the state crown.
The scenario could not have been scripted any more dramatic or confusing or extreme, from hope to defeat, for the Kamehameha Warriors. Judging by the indication of two referees, they believed Kalina Obrey’s last-second 3-point shot from beyond the ozone layer was perfectly in time to beat the horn. Which it was, upon examination of video footage. But the sound doesn’t determine end of game. The clock does, and its companion, the red light. Coach Pua Straight and Obrey rewinded the tape and recounted each step on Sunday night, still woozy from the turn of events.
For ‘Iolani, it was about backdoor cuts and layups. It was about Taylor Wu’s stunning NBA-distance 3, followed by the outer-regions bank-shot 3 that gave the ILH champions the lead for good. It was about key free throws by sophomore Alexis Huntimer and gritty defense by sister Alexsandra Huntimer on Obrey, who was “limited” to 24 points after pouring in a state-tournament record 38 in the semifinals.
It was about a struggling starter, in tears after the semifinal game, consoled by an assistant coach, bouncing back in the championship game to throw her body into the fray. Every very last loose ball on the ground, Kylie Yung went for it.
“Kylie Yung giving everything that she had on defense even though she couldn’t hit a shot,” Young said.
Between Yung, Alexsandra Huntimer, Jovi Wahinekapu Lefotu and Kawai Kahalehoe, the 5-foot-8 and under Raiders built a wall around the rim against Kamehameha’s posts and did all they could to neutralize that rebounding power. After doubling every opponents rebound total in the tourney, Kamehameha’s edge on ‘Iolani was a modest 36-32.
The clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch by Wu, Alexis Huntimer and Wahinekapu were shot with complete authority.
“Only big-time seniors can do that,” Young said. “The girls’ clutch free throws were so impressive. We needed every single one, too.”
The glow of victory will linger for some time on campus. After nearly two dozen years, the only question that remains after breaking the state title drought is this: can the Raiders repeat?
Some questions are better delayed. Let them bask in the glow.
But really, who has the edge for 2019-20?
This was a season of relative parity, but really not the kind of depth statewide we saw in the previous decade.
The BIIF has plenty of basketball punch with Konawaena, Waiakea and Hilo. But the years of the BIIF having an edge over the OIA, or having equal strength among the top five programs, it’s a bit skewed now. Neither league has five outstanding programs. In the OIA, Kahuku, Kalani and Mililani stood over their peers. But both leagues have programs that have dwindled since the 2000’s mainly due to population shift. Factor in more interest in volleyball, soccer and softball, and that partially explains why West Oahu is so dominant in sports like softball and soccer, but has remained flat in hoops.
Kohala was once a small-school powerhouse in girls basketball. So was Honokaa. Hawaii Prep is competitive at the D-II level. Programs at Ka‘u and Keaau have potential. The new P&R gym in Pahala is stirring up interest unlike any since Audie Cabudol’s Ka‘u Action youth team in the 1990s.
On Oahu, there is always potential, but programs like Roosevelt, Kailua, Campbell, Farrington, Pearl City and Aiea have seen better days. It’s not for lack of effort or coaching talent or facilities. Sometimes it’s a matter of cycles. Sometimes it’s just a lack of feeder programs at the youth level. But the potential is always there.
Looking ahead, there were many outstanding teams this season that had very few or no seniors on the roster.
>> After finishing second in the BIIF, Konawaena (14-5) knocked out OIA champion Kahuku at the state tourney and finished third with a win over Kalani. There are no seniors on the roster. Junior Caiyle Kaupu saw her young teammates mature and grow in what was a rocky season by Wildcat standards. Kaliana Salazar Harrell led a youth brigade in green, and Grace Lyn Hing and Kayla Pak stepped up during the stretch run. Bobbie Awa, as always, coached them up to their peak at the state tourney. The Stingrays youth club will continue to flourish and feed the high school program.
>> Maryknoll (20-5) did not qualify for the state tourney, but was clearly among the best statewide. The Lady Spartans were ranked between No. 2 and No. 6 all season. Jalen Tanuvasa is one of the top sophomores in the state, a physical, explosive slasher who often carried this team. Mahalo Akaka and Aloha Akaka showed marked improvement from the perimeter this season. This is a deep, athletic group that relied on uptempo play and constant fullcourt pressure. Chico Furtado may have been hesitant to unleash his teams of the past, relying more on halfcourt execution and discipline, but he let his team fly.
>> Waiakea (22-5) has progressed with each passing year under Coach Brandon Kauhi, winning the BIIF for the first time since ’08. The Warriors will lose three seniors — Claire Kaneshiro, Zaelynn Lui-Cabinatan and Sara Iwahiro — and return a stacked lineup that can press and run and score. This would’ve been a prime time to advance to the semifinal or even final round, but Waiakea was overmatched in a loss to Kalani during the quarterfinals. The obvious is this: this 5-8 and under roster can’t get the same inside looks at the state level that it does in the BIIF. The Warriors travel to Oahu for preseason, and in past years traveled in the offseason for tournaments. That still hasn’t made them into savvy playmakers who can defer at the point of attack and dribble away from traffic rather than take contested, low-percentage shots in the paint. When they finally do the Steve Nash dribble-out or dribble-out and circle back in move, things will change for this tough-nosed squad against elite opponents.
>> ‘Iolani (23-6) will graduate Taylor Wu and Kawai Kahalehoe, two gritty, tough two-way players who overcame obstacles along the way and became fixtures on this year’s championship squad. Their impact will be felt, as is often the case when alpha-level personalities and teammates depart. Their influence was felt all the way through this season, and the Raiders will be the favorite to win the crown again thanks to a surplus of elite-level returnees. Their main inside defenders, Alexsandra Huntimer and Kylie Yung, are juniors, and Jovi Lefotu is only a freshman. Gunner Kyra Tanabe is also a sophomore, and sophomore Lily Wahinekapu has already proven her ability to carry the scoring load. Wahinekapu is also a premier defender on the perimeter and fearless on the boards against bigger foes. Arguably the best perimeter defender in the state, Alexis Huntimer is also just a 10th grader. This team is set not just for next season, but for the 2020-21 campaign.
>> Kahuku (16-6) was very young this season with just two seniors, Meleane Tonga and Aja Tapusoa. The two starters will be missed, but like ‘Iolani, they set the bar for perseverance in the face of adversity. Coach Latoya Wily has received praise from coaches across the state as she and her staff steered the program into calm, safe waters following the departure of one of the top players in the islands. Powerful, skilled Leiah Naeata is clearly one of the best sophomores in the state, a game-changer who always has the ball in her hands — the kind of player that is difficult to stop with a specialized defense. Back in the day, defenses couldn’t do much to stop Darrell Griffith, a.k.a. Dr. Dunkenstein, because he was a tall point guard who could hit the 3, but destroy defenses in the paint. Tati Kamae, Serina Aumua-Tuisavura, Mary Fonoimoana, and the rest of the cast all return for the OIA champions.
>> Is it too soon to write off Kalani (21-8), a team that rose and declined multiple times during the season. The Lady Falcons will lose the force known as Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole, as well as guards Daesha Viela, Heidi Kishaba and forward Shelby McDaniels, They missed another senior, Kandyce Woods, the strong center who left the team before the state tourney. Her presence was especially missed in the semifinal loss to a big, physical Kamehameha squad. How can the Falcons replace this much graduating talent? Sophomore PG Kalena Halunajan was resilient all season, a slasher with few peers. Alayna Akiona proved to be a strong defender, complementing her 3-point touch, but she left the semifinal round with a knee injury. Status unknown. Guards Lilehina Oyama and Mandi Haraga will be back, as well. Reserves like Hallie Birdsong and Kira Niemi could become key fixtures in the starting lineup. The opportunity is there.
>> Lahainaluna (20-6) may have missed the boat this season. Ranked as high as No. 2 in the Star-Advertiser Top 10, the Lady Lunas were one of the few teams to beat Kamehameha in preseason. After running the table again in the MIL, they returned to Oahu and promptly showed no signs of improvement since preseason, missing a truckload of layups in a 47-30 loss to the same Kamehameha Warriors in the quarterfinals of the state tourney. Seniors Susitina Namoa, Teani Rickard, Alexia Plaza and Erin Hookano will be gone, all post players. There is talent in the pipeline from the Menehune youth program, and current sophomores Abigail and Ashley Akamine have plenty of potential. But a guard-heavy team that doesn’t shoot well doesn’t get very far at states, and that may be what is ahead for the proud Lunas unless those skills improve this offseason. I hear former all-state POY Maiki Tihada is in the vicinity and training ballers.
>> Kamehameha (18-7) cannot and will not replace outgoing standout Kalina Obrey, who has a real shot at becoming the most improved player of the year while also collecting enough votes as all-state POY. The Warriors will also lose solid backup center Kaylee-Brooke Manuel and guard Tehani Malterre, but the rest of the squad will return. The backcourt is junior-loaded, and long-armed, energetic Noelle Sua-Godinet is just a junior. If Sua-Godinet improves her scoring game in the post, that will alleviate the scoring pressure on the perimeter.
>> Mililani (17-5) had another stellar season in the OIA West behind the backcourt savvy of Dahlis Sablay. Next season will be a challenge with the graduation of Kalena Gibson, who made an amazing comeback from ACL surgery. Another post, Maddy Ayers, along with Maxine Gelacio and Lia Kojima will also graduate. Jumping jack shot blocker Kianna Ponce will be back. If Ponce transforms into a 20-point scorer on the block, the Trojans can take the West again, and perhaps venture further at the state tourney.
>> Seabury Hall (14-1) went unbeaten in the MIL and came so close to capture its first state title in girls hoops. The Spartans will lose Rachel Gilbert to graduation, and return the rest of the roster. Freshman Pio Tu‘ivai was a revelation as a 5-10 rebounder and 3-point shooter. Her older sister, 6-2 center Anau Tu‘ivai, is mobile and strong, only a junior. Ameera Waterford had a strong tourney before facing HBA’s experienced guards, and she is also just a junior. The question next season might be whether this Seabury Hall squad can beat MIL D-I dynasty Lahainaluna. The teams did not schedule each other this season and do not meet during the MIL season. It’s unlikely that the Spartans would move up to D-I in girls basketball, but they are clearly the second-best team in the league regardless of label.
>> Hawaii Baptist (25-6) won its second state title in four years behind the leadership of four-year letterman Kyley Nakagawa. They will return guard Alexis Dang, and posts Sasha Phillip and Hayley Taka. In all, the Eagles will graduate five seniors, including Caitlin Ching and Kalena Montgomery in addition to Nakagawa. The future remains bright thanks to the depth and tradition of the program.
>> A spectacular season for the Hanalani Royals (19-6) came to a quiet end with a loss to Waimea in the third-place game at Stan Sheriff Center on Saturday. It was odd enough. The Royals shot the ball well and were on fire in the first half. Then it was ice-cold shooting, forced shots and no recovery against a spunky Waimea squad. The Royals will lose four seniors, including sharpshooter Keila Tsutsui. They will have promising post scorer and rebounder Lishae Scanlan back. At 5-10, the freshman had some strong moments against Waimea. There has always been a question about whether teams from small, church-based private schools have the inner fortitude to truly compete and fight for a championship. The list of D-II state champions has mid-sized public and private schools up and down. If the small-school Royals utilize that beautiful on-campus gym year-round, there’s nothing stopping them, tough as it will be to replace Tsutsui.
>> Hawaii Prep (5-11) was the only D-II team with no seniors on its roster. Can they build on a strong BIIF season? HPA is a school that has a mix of locals and transplants, students who live nearby and students who dorm. That’s not an easy path to basketball success, being apart during the summer.
>> Waimea Menehune (13-4) emerged as one of the most watchable teams in the state tourney, D-I or D-II. Kaye Serapio, their sophomore guard, wasn’t the only triggerman on the fastbreak. This squad of 5-4 and under hoopsters did it with defense, transition offense and poise.
Serapio’s numbers for the tournament:
>> vs. Waipahu — 23 points (8-13 FG), 10 rebounds (four offensive), two assists, seven steals, one block, two turnovers
>> vs. Hawaii Prep — 21 points (10-17 FG), 16 rebounds (seven offensive), four assists, eight steals, no turnovers
>> vs. Hawaii Baptist — 15 points (6-8 FG), 10 rebounds (one offensive), three assists, five steals, three turnovers
>> vs. Hanalani — 28 points (9-16 FG), 13 rebounds (eight offensive), three assists, five steals, four turnovers
Total: 87 points (21.8 ppg), 33-54 FG (.611), 49 rebounds (12.3 rpg), 12 assists (3 apg), 25 steals (6.3 spg), 9 turnovers (2.3 per game)
Serapio played 126 out of a possible 128 minutes for Waimea, which suited up eight players.
There are more questions in D-II. Can Ka‘u take the next step? Will Kamehameha-Hawaii bounce back? Is there any potential post player taller than 5-7 on campus?