The bar is sky high to the heavens.
Twenty-three wins. Four losses. Two Wildcats on the Snapple/HHSAA Girls Basketball State Championships All-Tournament team. Nine Division I state titles since 2004. Thirteen appearances in the state final.
When the 2020 state championship game concluded and ‘Iolani claimed the big trophy, Bobbie Awa gave her team some space. The players, their families and friends congregated near one of the locker rooms, draped in lei and smothered with hugs. The mood, though, was immense gloom. The team, from a school with less than 1,000 students, has set the standard for girls basketball in the islands. Anything less than No. 1 is not enough.
Awa loves this team. She let them grieve the end of the season, the end of a dream. Seniors Gracie Hing and Caiyle Kaupu — who was phenomenal in the semifinals and finals — will move on to college. Kaupu scored 37 points against Kahuku in the semifinals, then 19 with eight boards against ‘Iolani, shooting a combined 25-for-30 (83 percent) from the field.
“They’re competitors. They love to compete,” Awa said. “Caiyle and Gracie, our captains, created a good family bond and that was huge in our success. They kept everybody accountable.”
When Awa and husband Donald began the Kona Stingrays youth team nearly three decades ago, it was a perfect way to have nieces and nephews, sons and daughters play on one team. When the county built Kekuaokalani Gymnasium at the Old Kona Airport Complex, the new P&R basketball league drew nearly 80 teams from ages 5 to 14 from as far away as Kohala and Ka‘u. The Stingrays are the one team, or “club”, that endured.
Family ties make for teamwork, as it has from the beginning.
“Literally half of our team are family. Caiyle, Gracie and the girls started at 10 in the Stingrays program,” Awa said.
That’s one reason why Konawaena survives and thrives with a roster as small as eight players some years. That closeness also allows for more honesty. When the Wildcats fell behind 16-4 after the first quarter against ‘Iolani, one of their leaders brought a jolt of energy.
“When we were down, Caiyle yelled at them during the time out,” said Awa, who stepped back. “She said, ‘Stop playing scared.’ “
Watching the Raiders play beautiful basketball was no surprise. Konawaena had lost handily to them at the ‘Iolani Classic in December. Lily Wahinekapu, who finished with 20 points and five steals, traveled with the Stingrays two summers ago. So did her sister, Jovi Lefotu, who had 22 points and six rebounds.
Konawaena roared back behind Kaupu, who had 10 of her 19 points in the second quarter, and the lofty 3-point bombs of sophomore Kayla Pak. ‘Iolani regained some momentum by halftime, turning a one-point lead into a 26-24 lead.
Then came the corner 3s by freshman Braelyn Kauhi. Konawaena led 33-28. The old magic dust sprinkled across Blaisdell. Then, it didn’t. ‘Iolani’s clutch shooting at the foul line capped a constant defensive effort in the 55-46 win.
“We needed to make stops on defense and that didn’t happen,” Awa said.
On paper, the smallish Wildcats and their sophomores and freshmen really shouldn’t be competing against juggernaut squads. For 16 years, Awa and her staff had found ways to make championships happen. There will be no replacing Kaupu, the state’s premier post player the past two seasons, as she goes on to play at UC Irvine. Yet, there is the rangy playmaking on defense by Julianna Losalio-Watson, a sophomore. Kaliana Salazar-Harrell — 23 points against King Kekaulike, 14 against Kahuku, 10 against ‘Iolani — is only a sophomore. The freshman, Kauhi, may be the best pure shooter returning next season statewide. Pak, who was quiet in the earlier rounds, showed signs of a clutch gene. Fearless.
With a strong core of returnees, Konawaena expects to get better and be in the state-title chase again.
“There’s no break for them,” co-head coach Dawnyelle Awa said. “They’ll be in the weight room, be stronger with the ball when the refs aren’t calling it. The girls came a long way. Next year, we’ll be back here again. So will ‘Iolani.”