(Due to space limitations in the print edition this morning, plus my consistent case of diarrhea of the pen, here is the extended version of the feature story on the Maryknoll girls basketball team.)
If this were a job, there’d be overtime pay and the workers would be grumbling.
Instead, it’s a passion, obsession and mission. Shortly after 6 a.m., there are jokes and smiles between the occasional yawn. When the Maryknoll Spartans get up before sunrise to be at the gym, it’s the start of another 16-hour day. Some days begin with weight lifting. Others are strictly about fundamentals. But they always end before 8 a.m., in time for a full day of school and homework.
While the rest of Hawaii sleeps in on Saturday mornings, the Spartans keep working. Back in August, first-year coach Steven Caley saw a key to success in a busy, crowded environment, and his players have responded. They hit the gym again and again, at 6:30 a.m.
Fast-forward since late summer, and Maryknoll is lighting up the scoreboard in league play. Three wins, no losses into the regular season, each just one step higher to the ultimate: a Division II state championship. With a returning All-State guard in Ashley Agcaoili, it’s very possible.
“At our first practice, before we started, we huddled and coach told us to yell, ‘1-2-3, States!’ That’s the last time we’ll say it until we get back to states,” Agcaoili said.
They’re a step quicker, increasingly sharper and much more accurate than most teams this early in the basketball season. It all goes back to that early-to-bed, early-to-rise work ethic, and it doesn’t stop on the hardwood.
Five Spartans carry a grade-point average of at least 3.7 — four have 4.0 GPAs. Caley, who wears a gray T-shirt bearing a “Ballers and Scholars” slogan, hasn’t done the math yet, but estimates that the team GPA is around 3.5 — an astounding average for any team in any sport. The perfect four: Ashley Agcaoili, Amanda Busmente, Kimiko Mitchell and Taylor Wong.
Agcaoili is the basketball celebrity of the group. She made the cut for Team Aloha as a sophomore, then an unknown quantity who sparkled in tryouts with precise lefty jump shots and blazing speed. As a junior, she was voted by coaches and media to the Star-Bulletin Girls Basketball All-State Fab 15 even though her team struggled against the powerhouses of the Interscholastic League of Honolulu.
She is averaging nearly 22 points per game, including a high of 28 against Lutheran, and has scored 44 percent of her team’s total. Through all the previous struggle at the D-I level, and all the current success against smaller programs in D-II, Agcaoili and her teammates have persevered and thrived in the classroom. That’s not to say it’s been a cinch.
“It’s worth it. You feel really good about yourself,” she said.
Wong, a senior guard, credits her instructors.
“Depending on the teacher, they make it pretty understandable, so it’s not bad,” Wong said. “It’s getting progressively easier.”
Athena Adora, a junior forward with a 3.7 GPA, is a big fan of chemistry class.
“It’s not as hard as Statistics,” she claimed.
Not everything is designed to cramp the brain. Wong’s favorite class is Painting.
“You paint pictures. We just finished monochromatic painting. It’s different shades of one color,” she said.
Another class Wong likes is AP Biology, but Agcaoili is no fan of the subject.
“AP Bio, it’s really hard. The last time I took Bio was last trimester, so I kind of forget everything. The book is like 10 pounds and has a thousand pages.”
Wong said the Biology book is actually just 7.4 pounds.
For all her complaints about Biology, Agcaoili actually appreciates her Economics class.
“The teacher treats us like his kids and the stuff you learn isn’t just one thing. It relates to the entire world. It’s fun and we do a lot of activities,” she said.
Success in the classroom carries over to the basketball court, and vice-versa, according to the Spartans.
“Same concept. Repetition,” Wong said.
“In basketball, you do drills over and over, it’s going to come naturally,” Agcaoili added.
Preseason, technically the period when players can begin practicing on the court with their coaches, began in early November. By then, the Spartans had undergone dozens of early morning workouts. No exceptions to the rule, not even assistant coaches and not even injured players. It was never an exclusionary deal for anyone who didn’t show up at 6:30 a.m.
“It’s not that bad,” said guard Cianna Ochoco, who sets her alarm for 5:30 and gets from Aiea to campus in plenty of time. “I’d rather have morning practice and get it over with, then have the rest of the day to do whatever I want. Most of the time, my grandparents drive me. They like to wake up earlier.”
In a positively twisted way, they just dig it so much, they continued to workout in the early hours once the preseason began. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the team works out early in addition to afterschool practices. The Saturday morning sweat?
It’s still on.
The sky is a grayish blue at 6:25 a.m. this past Saturday. Parishioners have begun to arrive at the on-campus church on Wilder Street. Stained glass begins to lighten as the sky slowly turns lighter.
In Clarence T.C. Ching Gymnasium, the Spartans begin to trickle in. Assistants Ed Gelacio and Travis Liu are already sitting near the door, lacing up their sneakers. Another assistant, John Oku, is also there. Adults getting up early, that goes without saying. But teenagers lifting weights and running while their classmates are still in bed?
“The bonding. It brought us together,” Agcaoili said.
It doesn’t hurt that Pattie Heatherly is a morning person. The longtime athletic director is bright-eyed long before the hoopsters arrive, ready for a full day ahead with the girls practicing, parents in the parking lot washing cars to raise funds for the girls, and the intermediate boys playing against St. Patrick after the girls are done. That’s all before 9 a.m.
“I know it’s such a great sacrifice for them and the coaches to come early like this. It’s an opportunity for them to have the whole gym to practice in, to have a real, concentrated, focus practice,” Heatherly said. “Otherwise, they have to be on the outside courts (in the afternoons), sharing and dealing with the outside elements.”
In the wee hours while Venus is still shimmering above, there is not a single cup of coffee in sight. Not a can of Red Bull. Just the sounds of squeaky kicks and basketballs meeting pristine hardwood.
The dream, even fantasy, of Maryknoll ballers for decades on end — to have a gym of their own — is now reality, and these kids get to live it. They don’t drift in a blissful gratefulness, though. Everything they do is timed and tracked, whether it’s sprints or bench presses.
Now, it’s one game at a time, one goal at a time. Maryknoll has a big test on Thursday: a showdown with University High.
“It’s going to be a big one. Besides, Punahou, ‘Iolani, Kamehameha, I think UH is a team to look out for,” Agcaoili said. “My brother goes to UH Lab, so I’ve seen them practice when we go to pick him up.”
All the hours have Caley’s voice coarse and worn, but he remains chipper and energetic.
“I make sure their legs aren’t too tired, but they really connect with each other and they’re coming together as a family,” he said. “It’s a full-time job, I’ll tell ya. This and teaching keep me really busy.”
The goal is to reach the state tourney, Caley added, but beyond that?
“Hopefully, we can bring home a really big trophy,” he said. “But the ultimate goal is to get all our seniors into top universities.”
Paul Honda, Star-Advertiser
This second photo includes assistant coaches Travis Liu and Ed Gelacio. Assistant John Oku had left already, and players Kimiko Mitchell and Amanda Busmente were toiling away at SAT testing.