This week, eight is enough for Konawaena.
The three-time defending state champions of girls basketball suited up in McKinley Student Council Gymnasium in their black uniforms, green lettering with white accents. Eight players strong. In a 59-28 win over Sacred Hearts, the Wildcats played lock-down man-to-man defense, their forte through more than a decade of excellence under Coach Bobbie Awa.
Mikayla Tablit and Cherilyn Molina pestered the Lancers everywhere, but most effectively at midcourt. The senior guards scored 15 points each. Caiyle Kaupu (10 points) led the frontcourt, continuing the quick-response post defense and fluid offensive skills that helped solve the puzzle of Konawaena’s latest title run.
“We started out good. We had some nice execution,” Awa said.
When SHA switched from man to zone, it took some time to adjust.
“We didn’t execute in the second quarter. There was a point in the second quarter we didn’t score for a while,” she added.
The newcomer is Kawena Kaohimaunu, a wing scorer who swished five treys and finished with 17 points against SHA. She transferred in the offseason from Honokaa.
Konawaena led 26-3 after one quarter and 33-13 at the half. The Wildcats began to hit 12-to-15 footers from the high post and that opened things up in the third quarter. The lead expanded, and with just eight players, mostly posts, Tablit and Molina kept churning on with swarming defense.
After eight state titles in a 14-year span, dynasty is the word most associated with the program from a small school from Kealakekua of the Big Island.
After the game, they were back to mere-mortal mode. Awa has been through every one of those seasons, most with a small roster. This roster for this tourney:
#2 Mikayla Tablit, Sr.
#11 Cherilyn Molina, Sr.
#15 Mo‘o Mo‘o Fautanu, Jr.
#20 Kawena Kaohimaunu, Sr.
#21 Kassie Alapai, Fr.
#22 Gabryela Kaipo, Fr.
#30 Jayla Medeiros, Fr.
#33 Caiyle Kaupu, So.
Long-range gunner Tanniya Uchida missed practice with an illness last week and didn’t make the trip. Two players who lettered as freshmen last season, Gracelyn Hing and Tayvia Cabatbat, did not return.
The staff includes former all-state guard Dawnyelle Awa, Bobbie’s daughter, and former all-state forward Jessica Hanato, along with longtime assistant Kevin Yamasaki. Donald Awa, Bobbie’s husband and head coach of the boys program, is also listed as an assistant.
Occasionally, there are more than seven or eight players. Konawaena actually fielded a junior-varsity team last season with a minimum of players. However, year after year, with all the koa trophies and accolades deserving of Awa, her staff and players, turnout for the Wildcats remains middling at best. It’s one of the most unique formulas ever to exist in prep hoops. How does a team that is 12 miles from its nearest competitor — in an area with one public gym planted in a radius of more than 60 miles — continue to overwhelm foes large and small?
It stems back to Awa, the Kona Stingrays youth team she and husband Donald have kept motoring since the early 1990s, and the dedication of the few hoopsters who stick through all adversity. On Wednesday, Cherilyn Molina signed her letter of intent to play for Washington State. She will join older sisters Chanelle and Celena Jane. Tablit, a defensive hawk with 3-point range and strong handles, plus the passing acumen that is a key Wildcat trait, already has college-level skills. Kaupu, rangy and long, is just a sophomore. She is similar in many ways to former Wildcat standout Mana Hopkins, who played her college ball at HPU.
With the track record of Awa, consistently sending academically qualified student-athletes to the next level, there may be no better value in the islands. Konawaena’s product has been outstanding for years, but the only cost Awa and her staff ask is commitment.
On the court, it’s the kind of defensive-grind mentality that few programs have executed over long stretches. Punahou had it during the Mike Taylor years, 10 or more players willing to bump and bruise themselves — and opposing players — just to play fierce man defense. A willingness to hit the floor at any time. Outstripping every foe. The only opponent who matched or surpassed that intensity was Konawaena. When Taylor left the program, Konawaena became the dominant team.
But here they are, years later, a novella full of championship chapters, periodic heartbreak and the constant drumbeat of Awa’s uncompromising expectations of fundamental basketball on both sides of the court. The Wildcats will be tested today against ‘Iolani, which edged Lahainaluna 49-45 on Thursday. On Saturday, they play Maryknoll in a rematch of the state title games of the past two seasons.
The youth of this team, plus the lack of depth, are partly why she decided the Wildcats would not play in the upcoming ‘Iolani Classic.
“We were invited to the Classic, but I felt that we needed more numbers to give those other teams a good game,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to be fair to the teams coming down (from the mainland).”