Jovi Lefotu is over it, way over it.
The cancellation of the 2020-21 basketball season was enough to break anyone’s heart, but Lefotu and her ‘Iolani teammates — the two-time defending state champions — worked through it. Wearing goggles. Sanitizing. The works. The Raiders played a home-and-home exhibition series with Kamehameha, and that was all she wrote for one of the best girls basketball teams in Hawaii history.
Suddenly, Lefotu is now a senior. Her sister, Lily Wahinekapu, is gone and thriving with Fullerton State. Lefotu, a versatile, athletic and high-IQ playmaker since freshman year, was a Star-Advertiser all-state Fab 15 selection as a junior. Last month, she signed with Hawaii.
“I’m so excited to be able to represent my state. Coming down to my top three (offers), it was really considering playing with my sister because it’s always fun playing with her,” Lefotu said. “UC Davis has been winning the Big West, five years in a row. But after my visit with UH, I just felt like I had to stay home and represent my state. I love the coaching staff, coach (Laura) Beeman, the girls, the connection.”
All ‘Iolani’s starters, with the exception of Lefotu, have also matriculated to college. What would have been, in all high probability, a peerless, perfect season last year, is just vapor now.
The now is about coach Dean Young’s 2021-22 ‘Iolani Raiders and the way they are poised to decimate foes. Not their words, but in the description of those who got to see the Raiders dominate a good Mililani squad on Tuesday in ‘Iolani’s first preseason game.
“I was really pleased with the ball movement, unselfish play and pace of the game,” Young said. “Our bench play was encouraging, as well, and I thought they did a great job since it was the first varsity game for most of them. It felt good to be back in the gym playing a real game after missing all of last year. There were a lot of butterflies and nervous energy and excitement by all, but I was happy for the girls that they finally got to play.”
Lefotu played limited minutes in the 85-26 win, but is embracing a fuller role as a senior and leader.
“Our team is definitely new this year, only five returnees, but we didn’t get a season last year. It’s basically a new team,” Lefotu said. “We only had a couple days of practice, chemistry growing and a great group of girls, everybody is unselfish. Everybody wants the team to succeed and we’re on the same page. Practices are really challenging and everybody’s pushing each other, holding each other to a high standard.”
‘Iolani’s defense has always been the foundation. Lefotu played on Raider teams that were tough, physical, fast and not that tall. But last year’s team would have also benefited from the presence of 6-footer Malenaite “Mele” Sake and sharpshooting guard Jaety Mandaquit.
The Raiders, with returnees Hailey Ohta, Abby Tanaka, Lefotu, Sake and Mandaquit, will get their fill of competition on Thursday with the return of the ‘Iolani Classic.
The field features Centennial (Las Vegas), the No. 7-ranked team in the country, and California powerhouses Archbishop Mitty and Salesian College Prep. Local teams in the tourney are ‘Iolani, Hawaii Baptist, Kamehameha, Lahainaluna and Maryknoll.
“It’s unbelievably exciting to play in this year’s Classic. It feels like forever since we were battling Mater Dei down to the wire a couple of years ago,” Young said. “We are a young team, but we still want to be competitive against these powerhouse teams from the mainland and represent Hawaii, and get better from the experience. There’s definitely a buzz in the air about this year’s ‘Iolani girls and boys Classic. The committee did a great job planning and fundraising to make sure we could put on a high-level, but safe event. I can’t wait.”
Spectators with vaccination cards and ID will be admitted to the girls tournament.
The high school preseason tipped off on Saturday, brief as the nonconference slate may be in girls and boys basketball. Moanalua visited Maryknoll in varsity and JV action.
The varsity debuts of Sake and Mandaquit are highly anticipated. Mandaquit was a long-distance bomber on the intermediate team two years ago. The younger sister of freshman phenom JJ Mandaquit also has great potential in soccer, another winter sport.
“She’s going to play basketball this year,” Lefotu said. “But she’s a beast in both sports. She just won a championship in soccer on the mainland.”
Sake just finished her season on the volleyball court.
“She also plays rugby. She’s definitely her own character, a fun person to be around,” Lefotu said. “Never afraid to ask questions. She definitely makes practice funny.”
When the Star-Advertiser Girls Basketball Top 10 is released soon, a multitude of teams could open at No. 1. Chances are, though, the dynasty at ‘Iolani will yield a good number of first-place votes.
“No. 1 would be cool and all, but we still have to prove it,” Lefotu said. “We don’t want anything given to us.”
Bonus shots: ‘Iolani Classic girls tournament games will be streamed on www.iolani.org.