And then there were two: House Awa and House Rickard.
The big dance enters its final night and the two finalists, top-seeded Konawaena and second-seeded Lahainaluna, are among the most unique sports programs in the islands. Unlike the fictional ‘Game of Thrones’, these houses are real, rooted in decades of sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears.
They are, without question, the first of their kind in their respective regions. But they also were built on the universal staples of time-honored success: repetition of basic fundamentals, commitment and work ethic.
Not everybody who enters the door at the two programs stays. Players commit 100 percent or not at all. It’s been a successful ask in both places. For Bobbie Awa, it began two decades ago when she and husband Donald began coaching nieces and nephews. The opening of the only public gym in North and South Kona districts in 1992 got the region excited about youth leagues. By the mid-1990s, there were nearly 80 teams participating in the age-group summer league hosted by Parks and Recreation at Kekuaokalani Gymnasium.
Of the dozens of new club teams that started, the development of young talent in boys and girls hoops benefited the only public high school in either direction for no less than 55 miles: Konawaena. Eventually, Kealakehe opened its doors (in ’98), and a club team called A‘oia funneled its talented to the school north of Kailua-Kona. By then, the Awas had gained vast success with their Stingrays club team.
But the roaring success of the new gym began to peter out. Youth leagues were still played there, but nowhere nearly as popular. As players graduated from high school, their coaches — almost always fathers who started teams for their daughters and sons — also moved on. As the new millennium arrived, even A‘oia dissipated. Without the roots of that club team, Kealakehe girls basketball also waned in success.
The last one standing? The Stingrays, with Bobbie also coaching the girls team at Konawaena. Since ’04, when the first of her nieces emerged as elite varsity players, the Wildcats have captured five state championships. With an enrollment of less than 1,000 — Kealakehe is the much larger school, just five miles outside the hub of Kailua-Kona while Konawaena is 12 miles south in ranch and coffee farm country — the most notable product of the region has turned out to be a generation of skilled, poised and tough-nosed girls basketball teams.
Across the water in Lahaina, Todd Rickard did much the same, developing players through the area’s Menehune program. Like Konawaena, Lahainaluna is a school known more for its history. Its football program. The Lunas have a tradition of hosting boarders that goes back decades, when kids from Upcountry Maui or even as far as Ka‘u on the Big Island arrived to attend the school, often staying from September through June.
Rickard, who played also football for the Lunas, started helping with the girls basketball team 23 seasons ago. After becoming head coach, the feeder program was already in place, and the pipeline grew and grew. The blueprint, he said, was the Stingrays program that the Awas built.
It was always interesting that the Stingrays numbers, and thus, the Wildcats’ numbers, have never been vast. There’s always been a core — well-trained, disciplined and often extended family members — that gave Coach Awa just enough numbers to compete for league titles year after year. The Lunas and Menehunes have often been deeper than most programs.
That’s where the strange twist of 2014-15 connected the two programs in a way nobody could ever have forecasted. When the Bates sisters, Lindsay and Taylor, and Aloha Salem decided to leave Lahainaluna before their senior season, Rickard had already anticipated it as far back as May of ’14. He wasn’t sure, though, where they’d go. Their move to another neighbor-island powerhouse, Konawaena, was stunning, but not illogical.
From the outside, it made no sense. Rickard and his staff had developed all-state players every year, including 2010 player of the year Maiki Viela (Gonzaga) and all-state center Milika Taufa (Indiana). With these two dominating their positions, the Lady Lunas won the state crown in 2010, rallying past Konawaena 47-45 in the only title-game matchup between the two programs — until tonight.
The Lunas, seeded first in the ’14 state tourney, lost to Punahou in the final. They seemed primed for return to the final in ’15, but a rift between Rickard and then-assistant coach Michael Bates, father of the sisters, devolved into irreconcilable differences of sorts. Both parties agreed to part ways.
The Bates twins, along with Salem, spent part of the summer traveling with teams from other islands. It wasn’t until the start of the current season, though, that basketball fans were aware that there would be a radical shift in the statewide talent pool. The three former Lunas arrived on the Konawaena campus, and Awa, who works at the school, was more than surprised that the process actually became real.
Rickard has said since preseason, when his Lunas won all three games at the Ted Fukushima Invitational — including a close one against Punahou — that it’s water under the bridge, so to speak. It had been so long since the three former Lunas had been part of the program that everyone had moved on.
The way Lahainaluna has played this week at the New City Nissan/HHSAA Division I State Championships, it’s impossible to disagree. Fiamea Hafoka has played lights out, a combination of explosiveness and poise in Rickard’s fastbreaking system. Their bigs have played big, and their freshmen have enjoyed more playing time than they ever could have if the former Lunas hadn’t transferred out.
Awa has seen numbers remain fairly low. Even with all their success, not every young basketball player wants to make the commitment it takes to play for the Stingrays and Wildcats. With the Molina sisters — all three already have scholarship offers — plus Ihi Victor and some young talent, the ‘Cats already had championship material. The arrival of three senior guards from Lahainaluna gave Awa instant depth and experience. The three are quality players on both ends of the floor and can stretch defenses with their 3-point range.
The Wildcats have college successes of their own, of course. Lia Galdeira, a three-time all-sate player of the year, and four-time all-state guard Dawnyelle Awa both start for Washington State. The all-staters of years past, from Jessica Hanato, Jazzmin Awa-Williams and Nancy Hoist to Mana Hopkins, Hina Kimitete and more, went on to play college hoops, mostly at the D-II level.
The friendship between Rickard and Awa has been enduring, even through this strange new chapter. From the start of this season, it turns out that these two giant programs from small towns were destined to meet under the brightest lights.
Tonight marks the turning of this page. The ex-Lunas now wearing white and green will complete their prep careers tonight, and a new chapter will begin for each house.
It’s been one heck of a book to read.