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Wright On: Christian Liberty’s hoop dreams modest yet aspiring

  • RICK OGATA photo
    Christian Liberty’s Kassey Hanoa defends Waiakea’s Taysia Rocha on Friday in a preseason girls matchup. The Canefire are a first-year program.

They all have their apprehensions this time of the year, every high school basketball coach in the state and the nation is eager to get the season started, even while feeling a bit of unease.

Since the end of last season, things have changed, this is a new team and every coach has an inkling of the kind of team being formed, but you need to take to the floor, get out there and play, to confirm, deny or further confuse the impressions.

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At Christian Liberty Academy in Keaau, it’s like that, only different, in almost every way you can imagine.

Newbies to basketball, CLA has a unique set of circumstances.

Does your team have returning players or did it graduate a big bunch of seniors? At Christian Liberty, nobody is returning, basketball is trying to stand up on its own again after a failed experiment a few years back. Here, there will be only junior varsity teams, with the hopes of building a program possibly next year, that would compete at the varsity level.

Does your team have a good-sized student body for the area? Big enough to persuade the big kid in class who has never played to give it a try? At CLA, there are 19 boys. Not 19 boys turning out for basketball, 19 boys in the entire student body, with 27 girls to form a high school with 46 students.

At least your team might have a home court advantage, but the Canefire play all their games on the road. Its on-campus field house features a SportCourt surface with no fixed baskets at the end, just four hoops nailed to the side walls. It’s a good surface for lots of different activities, not often used in interscholastic competitions, but it’s acceptable, if not common.

“We might lose every game we play,” Summer said the other day, “but that would be expected, right? It’s amazing, really, that we could even have basketball in a school with only 46 students, but if I can help them develop a passion for the game, to understand what it’s all about and have some fun trying to get better, well, that’s a big step.”

In that respect, the season for the Canefire’s JV girls who played their first game last week in a JV tournament at Waiakea, already took a turn. The girls won their first game — in their first game — when they outdistanced Keaau’s girls by 31 points.

“Kind of a big ‘Wow,’” Summer said. “Being JV and all, I didn’t know what to expect, I was just hoping we could find a couple girls who could put the ball in the bucket.”

Mission accomplished.

The school’s enrollment had dipped into the 30s a few years back but it has since picked up to a level that allows for team sports in different seasons. Two team sports in one season — girls’ volleyball and basketball, for instance — is out of the question, but the level of student involvement at Christian Liberty has been impressive.

“Most of the time,” said principal Troy Rimel, who coached soccer for 20 years at the school, “our athletic participation is up to about 80 or 85 percent of the student body.

“We are just trying to put fun back in the game, create a family atmosphere where the kids can enjoy and grow in the sport,” he said. “What we say is that we are ‘trying to build academic accountability and character in an oasis of opportunity.’ That’s our mission statement, you could say.”

The mission is challenged by the financial environment at the school where baskets suspended from the ceiling are required to open the field house to BIIF competition, and that’s a costly issue.

Rimel said it will take roughly $30,000 to get those baskets, a sum the school doesn’t have.

“If we have a parent or a donor who wants to help out, that would be great,” Rimel said, “but as we sit here today, we can’t afford that cost.”

That means that a few juniors playing for this season’s JV teams are expected to have a chance to play at the varsity level as seniors next year, but that won’t happen in their own facility, without some financial help from the outside.

“Last year,” said athletics director Gary Oertel, “our (boys) volleyball team had 12 of the 18 boys in school on the team, and they weren’t bad.”

Laupahoehoe struggles with student body size, there are charter schools with low numbers, but Christian Liberty has found ways to manage and expose students to athletics.

The school has a complexity of issues involving numbers because over the years, a certain number of students who play sports often transfer to Kamehameha, while others who can’t afford tuition may stay at Keaau or Pahoa. CLA has found its niche over the decades in Keaau, even while there is competition for students all around them.

But they persist.

“The plan is to go to varsity next year in both (boys and girls basketball),” Oertel said, “we have a couple eighth graders we will pick up next year and we will have a couple seniors ready for varsity.”

They have considered facilities for home games, like Shipman Gym in Keaau, or the Alexander J. Watt Auditorium in Mountain View, but the former is very busy and the latter is not a full-sized court and offers virtually no seating.

“We will figure it out when we need to,” Oertel said. “Solutions always arise.”

Fortunately, they have a coach with a background in small school issues, so there’s no panic, no worries, just a one-step-at-a-time approach that gradually moves them forward.

Summer is from Lansing, Michigan, but he grew up a Michigan fan, not a local Michigan State fan. He played high school basketball and eventually attended Northland International University where he became friends with a student who had come all the way from Hilo.

They are married now, and have been on the Big Island for a decade after Matt recalls once telling his future wife Margaret, “I’m not living in Hawaii, no way.”

Then he visited.

“Basically love at first sight,” he said. “I didn’t know much back then, but I learned a little here and there.”

Margaret tutors and home schools students, so both stayed in the profession and now their kids Kylie (ninth grade) and Brandon (seventh grade), have a dad who also happens to be a basketball coach.

“I love it,” Summer said. “We have three or four girls who have played some club basketball and they have an intense passion for the game that rubs off on the others. It’s new here, but we are building, it will get better.”

At bigger schools, the athletes can sometimes be intimidating to the non-athletes, but given the size of the school and the fact that everyone literally knows everyone else in the school, the opposite is at work at CLA where a friend often draws others into trying because they know it will be fun and pressure-free.

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For starters, they could hardly do more.

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