(Here’s the long version of this morning’s feature story on the Konawaena girls basketball team. The shorter version is here.)
It’s not a typical weekend for the defending state champs, but the Konawaena Wildcats know work quite well.
With offseason tournaments on the continent and fine pink threads — and pink sneakers — to wear, there are expenses to cover. There’s also the usual trip to Oahu in preseason (‘Iolani Classic) and postseason (Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament).
This is life for the Konawaena Wildcats, who have been ranked in the Top 5 statewide for seemingly all of the past decade. In fact, since Dawnyelle Awa and Lia Galdeira arrived as freshmen to play for Awa’s mom, Bobbie, it’s been virtually No. 1 every week with one exception: the upset loss in the 2010 state final to a Lahainaluna squad powered by Maiki Viela (Gonzaga) and Milika Taufa (Indiana).
They’ve been No. 1 all season, now 5-0 in league play and 17-3 overall. All three losses, plus a win, came at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona during a flu-ridden week for the team. Two state titles in three years with a record of 100-8 during that span, and the ‘Cats are still hungry for another one in February.
Between all the drills and scrimmages and Coach Awa’s insistence on proper defensive rotation, there’s this: her offseason club team setting up shop at football games and other events to sell tasty food to the masses. That’s real life in high school athletics. Fundraise or stay home. So, the Kona Stingrays set up a concession stand at the HI-PAL 3-on-3 tournament over the weekend at the Old Kona Airport Park.
“When the 5- and 7-year-olds play, some of us will officiate,” Awa said before the weekend.
In between, there was a trip to Kohala — a 146-mile round trip — for a 54-16 win on Saturday night. That’s life for a basketball lifer in a small place where everybody knows your name. Up mauka, in Kealakekua, the Wildcats are both stars and the same kids who have been competing since they were little keiki, working on the courts diligently while hardly anyone else was watching.
Galdeira grew up in Waimea, a standout among both girls and boys, before joining the Stingrays. As eighth graders, Awa and Galdeira developed an on-court chemistry that continues today.
Awa has always been a top-notch defender in Konawaena’s halfcourt man-to-man scheme. Her long arms, and deceptively quick hands make her, arguably, the finest roundball thief in the state. But it’s her vision from the point, delivering the timely bounce pass to a cutter like Kaupu, or a mid-range gunner like Awa, that make the Wildcats so difficult to contain.
That was clear at the ‘Iolani Classic last month, when Awa was named most valuable player of the tourney. The most outstanding player? Who else. Galdeira played with a quiet fury, possibly still fueled by the memory of physical fouls the year before against eventual tourney champ Brea Olinda (Calif.).
This time, she did the damage, amassing 64 points, 28 rebounds and 15 steals in wins over Bishop Gorman (Nev.), Oregon City and Brea Olinda. It was classic Lia, who watched Brea Olinda intently during the opening round, but denied having any special motivation for a rematch. The team that split her eyelid and bruised her badly in ’10 — sending her into the wall behind the basket several times — paid dearly. She had 15 points, six rebounds and four swipes in the tourney final.
Their chemistry and complementary skills sets are unmatched, at least in the eyes of former University of Hawaii guard and ex-Aiea coach Fran Villarmia-Kahawai.
“They’ve got to be the best tandem of any school,” she said. “Other teams have had one star player, but not a tandem like them.”
The win over Brea Olinda was for this season’s Wildcats. Underclassmen like Hoku Liftee and Makani Wall picked up the slack, and Kaupu stepped up and outplayed her foes in the post through the tourney.
Awa knows things won’t be the same when her daughter and Galdeira graduate. The bloodline of Awa and Hanato athletes is nearing the end of a cycle for the girls program.
“Our club is not that good right now. There are not that many girls and we’re taking our shots from other teams,” she said. “We’ll have our dry spell. Honokaa and Kohala, they’re kicking butt and winning (age-group) tournaments.”
For now, Konawaena has a player in Galdeira who could score 40 a night if that was the strategy. Instead, the Wildcats average 61 points per game and the focus, as it has been with four state titles in eight years, remains defense. They allow 34 points per game, and no local team has scored more than 39 on them. That team was Mid-Pacific.
Current KS-Hawaii boys coach Dominic Pacheco coached a girls summer team in ’08 that included some Stingrays.
“We took a team to Las Vegas and took first place,” he said. “I knew in time Lia would improve. She was very athletic. Learning the game and improving her basketball IQ would come through Coach Bobbie.”
The early Konawaena dynasty teams were led by future Division II college hoopsters Jessica Hanato, Jazzmin Awa-Williams, Nancy Hoist and many more. Even when the cycle of talent was in neutral mode, talent moved to the college ranks; former All-State forward Mana Hopkins-Vandenakker is starring at HPU now.
The year after Hopkins graduated, those eighth-grade phenoms began high school. Awa and Galdeira had been shredding through girls and boys teams at the age-group level. In fact, Galdeira was already a legend on the Pop Warner football field.
But not everything went perfectly during that freshman year, even as Konawaena captured the state crown. After the tourney, the two standouts were invited to try out for Team Aloha, then-mayor Mufi Hanneman’s select squad that traveled to a mainland tournament each spring. A committee of former coaches picked Galdeira to the 12-player roster.
Playing the role of a point guard, distributing and moving without the ball, Awa blended in — something her mom had been concerned about. After all, in a tryout scenario, coaches instinctively gravitate to playmakers. Awa didn’t make the cut, even though she’d been a pivotal player on a state title team. Yet there were selections from other teams, including two players from ‘Iolani — Hanneman’s alma mater — that surprised more than a few observers.
That sting hasn’t gone away. Awa and Galdeira played on later Team Aloha squads coached by Villarmia-Kahawai. The previous coach, longtime coaching great Dana Takahara-Dias, moved on to the University of Hawaii. When the Rainbow Wahine came calling with scholarship offers, Awa and Galdeira instead went with their only other offers — from Washington State. They signed with the Cougars in November.
Though it wasn’t necessarily Takahara-Dias alone who made the final decision on that 2009 Team Aloha roster, it may have created a sour taste that hasn’t gone away. Awa and Galdeira never even made an official visit to UH-Manoa.
“It’s hard to say. I think it stayed with Dawnyelle,” Bobbie Awa said.
UH offered the two scholarships during their junior year.
“Dawnyelle didn’t say, ‘I’m not going to UH.’ I’m sure they would’ve loved to have played for the fans in Hawaii,” Bobbie said. “But out of all that, I think Dawnyelle grew. She worked harder.”
Work, they did. Winning this often doesn’t make everybody happy. The ‘Cats opened the new year with a 108-11 win over neighboring Kealakehe — one of the largest schools on the island. No Wildcat scored more than 20 points. Three nights later, they went to Laupahoehoe and won 107-3. The high scorer, Courtney Kaupu, had 16 points.
Still, the trouble that comes with winning by that kind of margin is that numbers can lie. The truth is, things could have been much worse.
“Against Kealakehe, two of my starters — Lia and Makayla (Awa) didn’t play in the first quarter,” Bobbie Awa said. “Dawnyelle didn’t play in the fourth quarter.”
The Wildcats rarely press fullcourt anyway, sticking to a straight man-to-man defense. The notion of running time off the clock to keep the score down was not in the game plan.
“We’re not going to stand there holding the ball,” Awa said. “We played man, 1-3-1, 2-3 zones.”
As lopsided as it got at Laupahoehoe, Konawaena did all it could to keep the game closer.
“We stayed inside the 3-point line,” Awa said of the second half. “After the game, their AD (Hoku Haliniak) said, ‘Thanks for showing good sportsmanship. You’re a classy coach.’ ”
Since the Big Island Interscholastic Federation went to an East-West scheduling format to save on transportation costs — the highest in the state — teams on the opposite ends of the competitive spectrum have lost out. Laupahoehoe, with less than 100 students, is rightfully in Division II. But before D-II was established, schools were in North and South — now called West and East — divisions. Though it is 25 miles from Hilo, Laupahoehoe has always been grouped together with the Westside schools, and thus, Konawaena.
The Wildcats haven’t gained a thing, either. The previous, separated D-I/D-II format allowed them to play Top 10 teams like Kamehameha-Hawaii and Waiakea at least twice a year. Now, they only meet in the preseason, if that, and playoffs.
Konawaena, with an enrollment of roughly 900, isn’t even the largest school in the district. But the dedication and commitment to basketball through Awa and husband Donald, who coaches the Wildcat boys, has been unbreakable for two decades now. Of all the basketball clubs that sprung up in 1992 when the county finally built Kekuaokalani Gym, none have survived except for the Stingrays. That makes the struggles of Kealakehe understandable, but the lack of clubs in the Waveriders’ district is maybe even more puzzling.
Whatever the case, at Konawaena, the bar of excellence is set high. Sleepy town, cows grazing on the baseball field, and the state’s premier dynasty.
Finding competition is Awa’s priority. The Wildcats had an exhibition game with KS-Hawaii lined up last Friday, but the Warriors pulled out. A game against the 10th-ranked team in the state would’ve been valuable.
“I don’t really compare it to Honolulu teams,” Awa said of the regular-season schedule. “In the ILH and OIA, they’re working their butts off every game.”
Sometimes, that means manning the concession stand and reffing little kids’ basketball games on a three-day weekend. The Wildcats know work quite well.
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser