The Lady Raiders of Kahuku never wavered.
The ups and downs made them stronger as they rose to capture the Oahu Interscholastic Association girls basketball Division I title last week with a 63-59 win over Kalani. Leiah Naeata surpassed expectations all season, capping it with a 33-point, eight-rebound, seven-assist performance against Kalani.
Coach Latoya Wily saw her team, especially returnees like Naeata, transform after a postseason loss to Moanalua last year.
“I know that was one of her biggest games with the cameras and everything around, but after that loss, she and the returnees took it hard. They wanted to be back in the playoffs and they worked hard towards that,” Wily said. “Her maturity on the court is a lot different. She’s beginning to understand her role as a leader, even as a sophomore. She creates, she understands when the help comes and she trusts in her teammates to finish. Her all-around game is just different. She’s shooting on the outside now, her perimeter shot. Rebounding has always been big for us, all five girls, and she’s doing that, too. They try to help each other out on the court. They understand that they need each other. They have that bond. I love it.”
Kahuku is a unique place with the kind of community support and passion that is seen more in rural locations like the Big Island. While the Lady Raiders’ coaching staff, led by former All-State center Wily, built up their team’s confidence steadily in a perfect 14-0 OIA season, community support was immense.
“It’s a great environment,” said Naeata, a sophomore who is both one of the state’s top point guards and rebounders. “Over here it’s a family-oriented gym. People are always welcome. Everywhere we look, there’s always family. You see aunties. You see uncles. Everyone is supported here.”
Ford Naeata’s first love is rugby. First daughter Leiah did not enjoy the sport. Eventually, mom (Leialoha) and dad coached her in soccer and basketball. The latter sport took hold and Leiah Naeata thrived, even though there aren’t a lot of girls playing basketball in her community at a young age. She eventually played on a boys team, and that accelerated her process.
“We knew basketball is not the No. 1 sport for girls here. It’s probably volleyball,” Ford Naeata said. “The boys game is always faster and it built her skills up. She was already motivated. She found the basketball bug around 9 or 10. I don’t know why, but it excited her.”
The biggest aspect of Kahuku’s success this season, 14-0 in the Oahu Interscholastic Association and the program’s first Division I title since 2005, is as much about character as it is talent.
“Everybody was predicting ‘Iolani versus Kahuku,” Ford Naeata said of the summer of 2018.
Then one of the newcomers, Lani Neves, moved to Utah. A talented transfer from Timpview (Utah) got hurt in tryouts. Ultimately, Kahuku’s top returnee, All-State Fab 15 selection Sisilia Kaufusi, transferred to Utah.
“All of that fell apart. I just said, ‘Just do your best’,” Ford said.
Naeata is surrounded by family. Mom (Leialoha) teaches senior English at Kahuku. Her grandmother, Leialoha Finai, teaches junior English. Char Tailele, her auntie, is a special education coordinator. Ford Naeata isn’t too far away. He is executive director of the Bobby Benson Center in Kahuku.
“The best part is the journey,” he said of Leiah’s year-round play. “The whole Kalani starting five, and three of the subs, she’s played with them. She’s played with the Kamehameha girls. She’s enjoying the journey, a lot of good friends and coaches. Simon Bitanga, Mike Taylor, Proformance, they’ve all been good tutors and role models for her.”
You can read Tuesday’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser feature story on Naeata by clicking here.
Q&A / Favorites
Dwayne Wade, the old-school Dwayne Wade. He’s a great guard, for starters. He likes to look around the court. He finds opportunities not only for himself, but his teammates.
Chicago Bulls. I love the Bulls. I love Chicago. Mostly because of Michael Jordan, but I’ve been to Chicago the past few years and I love it. I liked going to the Nike Store. There are seven floors and a lot of apparel there.
Food (at home)
Anything my mom (Leialoha) makes. Steak and onions. She makes it on the pan, lots of butter. I can’t make it as good as my mom or my grandma (Leialoha Finai). I like it well done.
Food (eating out)
Cake noodles at (Laie) Chop Suey. It’s where I was raised. We always go there every Friday.
I would love to say reading, but I’m not a reader. Swimming and spending time with my family. My family is everything to me. Just relaxing. Getting stress off because basketball is very stressful nowadays. I’ve read the Book of Mormon, tried to finish it.
Mulan. Funny story, when I was 5, I cut my hair real short to mimic her. My dad doesn’t like it when I cut my hair. It was a really bad haircut. My favorite scene is when she is going to talk to the lady to honor her family, and she messes up.
Hawaii 5-0. I like it when it first started eight years ago. It caught my attention more than now. Most of the problems now are different from back then. My parents try to get me to watch the original series.
Call of Duty, Black Ops 3. Me and my dad have competitions. We have a system. He’s the sniper and I take the machine gun and walk around. It’s fun for us.
Ne-Yo. He’s an R&B pop artist. My favorite song is “So Sick.” It’s a song that I just listen to when I’m bored. It relaxes me.
My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Stewart at Laie Elementary. She got me to love going to school. She helped me fix my grammar and she made me love reading books. She retired a long time ago. She’s a busy lady with her family and her grandchildren.
GPA: 3.8 (current), 3.6 or 3.7 cumulative. If I get a 4.0, my parents give me a high five and take me to (Laie) Chop Suey. My mom lost opportunities because she had to take care of family, so she couldn’t go to college, so I want to make them proud and represent my family well, not only in sports, but also in education. My mom is a teacher here, so she keeps an eye on me.
If you weren’t an athlete, would your grades be higher or lower?
I think they would be higher. I would have more time. With basketball and sports, I have to learn to manage my time and my priorities.
Culinary. We start with basics, cutting skills, stuff like that. Then we get to the meat course. Chocolates. Garnishing.
I always use the acronym FOE, which is Family Over Everything. That’s something that’s very close to my heart. That’s something my parents embedded into our brains.
What does your mom (Leialoha) say that you can’t forget?
When she says, ‘I love you’, that’s just the main thing. When my mom says that, it just means so much to me. She says it as much as she can, but she says it in other ways. Tough love. Yelling.
What does your dad (Ford) say that you can’t forget?
‘Wake up.’ He always tells me to wake up even when I’m in bed, when I’m playing, when I’m not doing good. All he yells is, ‘Wake up,’ and then I wake up and start doing what I need to.
What do your coaches say that you can’t forget?
I would say our motto, which is ‘Look up, lift up.’ It’s very important, especially in games like we had a couple of days ago (against Kalani). It was very important to look up and lift up, especially with me fouling out. I knew my teammates would pull out the win.
How does basketball affect your life year-round?
In season, it gives me a reason to do better in school, focus on church, rely on God. Basketball has not only impacted my life, but my family, especially. With club, they make so many sacrifices for me.
Have you played other sports?
I played volleyball (in high school). I didn’t play this past year, but I plan on playing next year. It was fun.
Which middle school and elementary school did you attend?
Kahuku Middle and Laie Elementary.
What youth teams did you play for?
I started playing in our local PAL League. My dad was coach from ages 4 to 10. My first team that went to town was Laie Park boys. I played with the boys my age. They really shaped me into the player I am. They roughed me up, I’d say. They gave me that rough exterior that I needed, which helped me play the way I play now. I played on club teams like Eastsidaz, Storm, and I currently play with 808 and Proformance.
What places have you traveled to?
We traveled to San Francisco, the Bay Area. This past summer, we went to Oregon. I’ve been going to Chicago for the past four years every summer.
What’s something you’re good at that might surprise people?
I’m really great with babies. I love babies. I can make a baby smile in 10 seconds. I can do dirty work, too, so let me know if you want me to babysit. It depends on how many babies, but I wouldn’t charge that much. It’s for my pleasure.
Bucket list destinations?
I want to travel, not for basketball, just for fun. I want to travel to Paris, New York and also backpacking in Egypt. I’d go on one long trip.
Time machine. If you go travel to the future or past, where and when and who?
Believe it or not, I would take the time machine and travel back to 2001 when the Fast and the Furious movie franchise started and meet Paul Walker, who is my favorite male actor. I’d ak him to talk to the director to give me a part in this movie, which is my favorite movie franchise to this day other than Mulan.
What is the history of your name?
My middle name is kind of long. It’s basically a combination of all my dad’s sisters’ names, so it represents my dad’s family. My dad’s Tongan. He has four sisters.
My last name basically means unification. That’s how my dad was raised, and that’s how he wanted to raise us and how he wants our children to be raised.
Shout out to my grandma. Her name is also Leialoha (Finai). She’s just my No. 1 supporter. Even though I know I did bad, she’ll tell me, she’s not a coach, but she’ll tell me, ‘Good job.’ When my parents are giving me a hard time, she’ll always be there. Shout out to my grandma. My parents both give tough love.
Also a shout out to Coach Kahau. He’s the JV coach for the boys. After PAL season ended I went looking for a team and he actually pulled me in. I was about 10, 11. His act of putting me on his team made me realize I needed to work harder. The boys on that team made me work harder, as well.
My last shoutout goes to my teammates and my coaches. They make me better. They make me a different person and a different player from last season.
In the offseason, you kept busy, but were you concerned that your team might not have been able to work out together as much as other teams.
I was concerned a little. I had a bunch of friends, they were all my sisters and my friends last year and I wondered why we weren’t showing as much commitment as the past summer, but I knew that they had family, they all play different sports. I was hoping and I was praying and I knew they would eventually focus on the season when we all started conditioning in October.
Kaufusi was one of the top returnees in the state, a 20/10 all-state Fab 15 player as a junior. Her departure was a major loss at the time for Kahuku. Coach Latoya said Sisi and her dad informed the coaching staff before the first week of preseason that she would move to Utah. But you and your teammates didn’t know. She seemed to be playing differently, trying too hard maybe, getting into foul trouble. Did you sense something different?
We noticed, not just as a player we noticed she was different, but as a friend, as a teammate. We knew that she was playing a little differently. She had something on her mind. Unfortunately, she couldn’t tell us. That’s her deal, that’s her family. That’s none of my business, none of our business. We showed her support. We showed her love. No matter whatever she was going through, that we had her back and we support her.
Your team struggled that first week, it’s just preseason. Did your team talk about it?
We talked about it with our coaches, but as teammates, we knew as her friend, as her teammate, wherever she went, we would support her. Throughout the season, we kept in touch with her. She kept in touch with us. It was a very big impact on our team. With our coaches, they always told us, yes Sisi was our friend, but now that she left, it’s the next woman up. I’m so proud of my teammates for stepping up, filling a role that was so big, and they’re making the role even bigger.
You bring the ball up, start the offense and then head straight to the post. You’re too strong for most guards down there and it’s too late for the bigs to come help.
It started with the (Laie Park) boys. In practice, everyone fouls. At Laie Park, there’s no such thing as a foul. I grew up with the boys fouling me. There were a couple, two or three big boys. There was Sula, Aja Tapusoa’s brother. There was Lorrin, he’s on the JV team. There were the guards.
Who hacked you the most, treated you exactly like a boy?
I would say two players, they’re on the varsity team right now. Shon Reid and Daniel Kaio. It toughened me up. As I recuperated and think about it now, it helped me as a player.
Your rebounding, your offensive rebounding, is probably something your dad taught you at a young age. You’re probably the only point guard who crashes the boards like that.
Nowadays, people like to score outside, it’s all about the 3-point shot.
You hit a couple in the championship game. You’re a good shooter.
But I believe and I was taught since I was young to work down and dirty, go in the post, grab those rebounds, work hard for it. As I was growing up, I wasn’t really a shooter, and as I grew up, I worked my shot out.
When did your team feel like things were coming together, you might win a title?
We told ourselves we could run this game from when Sisi left. We knew if we told that to ourselves and we worked hard for it, it was all going to be worth it, and you can see a couple days ago, it was all worth it.
Who works with the guards most?
Coach Artevia (Wily) and Coach Smalls.
Your team had just 12 turnovers against Kalani. They usually force 25 to 35.
It was a very good game on our team’s part. We expected the press to come. They’re fast, they use their speed. They’re not as tall as us. They’re at ball level, which is low, and we knew that we had to practice and go over it. Eventually, with repetition we figured it out. We had a slight struggle in the beginning where we were dribbling up, but the middle was wide open and we started cutting middle, following our coaches’ directions. Eventually we pushed them back to a halfcourt defense.
When you fouled out with 1:10 left and Kahuku ahead by two points, a lot of people thought Kahuku was going to lose.
Most of our students here were a little bit surprised. We were in a (OIA title) drought for 14 years. People doubted us. We just used that as fuel. In that (final) minute, it gave me anxiety. It gave everyone anxiety, but if we stayed calm like we were the whole game, we knew we could pull this out. God was on our side and we eventually pulled out a win.
No games this week. State tournament is next week. That’s a lot of time.
We are going to buckle down on the things that aren’t as perfect as we need to be. Grab boards. With states coming, there’s different teams, the ILH, the Big Island teams. It’s a different level of play. There’s shooters. There’s attackers just as strong as me or even stronger. We need to buckle down on just the little things because little things make the biggest difference.