In an era when large rosters and immense depth of talent tend to rule the prep basketball universe, there’s Konawaena.
Coach Bobbie Awa’s Wildcats have proven, once again, that talent is great to have, but depth? The Wildcats may be the only program, boys or girls, that has demonstrated that it doesn’t take 15 or 12 or even 10 players to win a Division I girls basketball state title. Up to last Friday night’s clutch 44-34 win over a tremendously deep and young Maryknoll team, Awa and her hoopsters have captured seven state championships over the last 13 seasons.
The Wildcats meet almost no general consensus when it comes to the elements that make up the typical dynasty in Hawaii.
>> Consistency at the top
Awa has been at the helm of the girls hoops program since the mid-1990s, before any of the current Wildcats were born yet. Other programs that have reached the pinnacle in recent years like Kamehameha and Punahou have experienced turnover at the head coaching position. Even Hilo, which has been a force in the BIIF and statewide, lost its head coach, Ben Pana, who is now coaching the boys program there. The most consistent program at the state level besides Konawaena: Lahainaluna, which has a head coach (Todd Rickard) who has been in charge for nearly two decades. Like Awa, he has his imprint on the feeder program in the Lady Lunas’ district.
>> Administrative support
In an era when more and more parents locally and across the nation feel entitled to express their personal needs ahead of the team’s success, Awa has full confidence and backing from her administrators, as well as the community. Take one key piece of the puzzle away, and the challenges become supremely immense. Teamwork on and off the court has been vital.
>> Konawaena is not a large public school
Since Kealakehe opened in 1998, Konawaena immediately became one of Hawaii Island’s mid-sized high schools. Since the girls basketball tournament went to a classification format in 2003, Konawaena has stayed in D-I with the big girls.
>> Konawaena is not an elite ILH school
Time to time, I’ve heard rumors of players from other islands, not just within the BIIF, considering a move to the Kealakekua-based campus. It happened last year when the Bates twins (Lindsay and Taylor) and Aloha Salem relocated from Lahainaluna. But the rest of the time, it turned out to be nothing but chatter. Leave home to play with a group of dedicated, humble basketball student-athletes? It’s understandably tempting, but parents in the girls hoops universe generally gravitate more to Hawaii’s universally-known institutions like Kamehameha and Punahou, ‘Iolani and, in the new generation, Maryknoll.
>> Konawaena is not from the state’s largest (by far) public-school league
Though the BIIF has a fairly large contingent of public and private schools, the league has just two berths in the D-I state tourney. The OIA dwarfs the state’s other public-school leagues and has six state berths.
>> Konawaena draws from a small population in the South Kona District
Historically and currently, other sports like soccer, softball and volleyball draw larger numbers than Konawaena’s girls basketball program. That cuts severely into the talent pool available to Awa, but it also becomes addition through subtraction. The Wildcats are left with only the most dedicated players.
It’s a mix of blessings (talent) and devotion (work ethic) that have made the ‘Cats uniquely successful. Chanelle Molina has been a magical player (27 points in last year’s state final win over Lahainaluna, 24 points in this year’s title win over Maryknoll). Prior to her, Lia Galdeira was arguably the greatest female high school athlete of this generation, forming a potent 1-2 combination with point guard Dawnyelle Awa. But one or two players alone can’t do it all.
This year’s team suited up nine players, some of whom were on the JV team that actually didn’t exist at the start of preseason due to low numbers. Eventually, the team ran too low number-wise and closed shop. That’s a big reason why, in a slow-paced battle against Chico Furtado’s Maryknoll squad, Awa opted to play only her five starters: Ihi Victor, Mikayla Tablit, Cherilyn Molina, Celena Jane Molina and state-tourney most outstanding player Chanelle Molina.
Each year and certainly each specific state championship is different, as Awa, a former Hawaii Pacific College player, has said. Take one player away from those early Wildcat teams that were fed directly by Bobbie and Donald Awa’s Kona Stingrays club team, and the chemistry may have been altered. Maybe there would be no championship trophy in 2004 or ’07 or ’09. Add one more player and maybe the Mana Hopkins team in ’10 has enough to reach the final instead of falling in the quarterfinals with just seven players.
The past four title teams (’11, ’12, ’15, ’16) were loaded with individual talent on the court, not a lot on the bench. When the Wildcats last felt the sting of an upset loss, it came on Feb. 8, 2014 in a 54-51 quarterfinal loss to Mililani. Chanelle Molina, then a sophomore, had 27 points, four assists and five steals. Victor, also a sophomore, had 11 points. Beyond that, the team was young and relatively inexperienced compared to a Mililani team that featured transfer Sarah Liva (13 points, 13 rebounds) and sharpshooter Mikaela Limper (17 points).
Mililani went on to lose to eventual champion Punahou 53-48 in the semifinal round. Konawaena responded in ’15 by ousting Punahou in the quarterfinals 51-37 and Roosevelt 54-33 in the semis. The Wildcats then stopped Lahainaluna 51-41 for their first title with all three Molina sisters — point guard Cherilyn now in her freshman year — together on the varsity roster.
Simplicity is too easy an explanation, but it’s understandable. Awa’s teams always play man-to-man defense, though there have been some slight tweaks here and there. When the Wildcats arrived at the state tourney last week, their defensive prowess and flexibility were so good, they utilized a lot of jump switching. That played a role in their wins over Punahou (yes, they seem to face the Buffanblu almost regularly in the quarterfinals), Kaiser and Maryknoll.
Defensive versatility has been huge for Awa’s team. Victor is strong enough to stymie bigger post scorers, but nimble enough to cover the perimeter, and certainly fast enough to be a weapon in transition. Celena Jane Molina, who will return next season, is arguably the best defender in the state with her length, quick feet and ability to cover any position 1 through 5.
Awa’s teams continue to see man defenses in preseason, when the Wildcats won the ‘Iolani Classic against mainland competition and went 2-1 at the Title IX tournament in D.C., and in the state tourney. She and her staff have built Konawaena to execute against man defense with steady stream of backdoor cuts, but no key may be more important than the patience of all five players on the floor. Even the mighty Galdeira, now playing professionally in Europe, never dominated a game with shot attempts. She always preferred to stay in system, working patiently and precisely for the right shot at the right time.
There hasn’t been a program in the past decade-plus that engineers offensively with as much understanding of angles and spacing, boys or girls.
And now, the 2015-16 season is over. Victor and the oldest Molina, Chanelle, will graduate. But it was an unusual ride. Both seniors missed significant time due to injuries during the BIIF season, and the remaining Wildcats learned and evolved, and kept winning. It was a prelude to what the 2016-17 season will bring. There will be question marks, as always, about depth and size.
But the younger Molinas, crafty and uber-quick Cherilyn and rangy, tough Celena Jane, helped lead Konawaena through that injury-riddled patch in January. Awa still has the passion for the game and her knowledge is masterful. She was born to teach, and her players were born to be coachable. She will take the reins as coach of Team Aloha in the spring, and then she will take her Stingrays team to the mainland in the summer. The seasons change, but Konawaena girls basketball cycles through the same pattern and efficiency, young keiki filling their days with repetition of fundamentals.
It’s been no overnight miracle, but the results have been nothing short of miraculous.