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Wait until this year: Waiakea girls gunning for elusive D1 title

  • BRAD BALLEDTEROS/Tribune-Herald
    Junior Kelsie Imai leads the charge for Waiakea.

Seeing how Waiakea’s girls basketball team would seem to feature a roster full of problem-solvers and solutions, with little in the way of question marks, let’s just cut to the chase.

Is this the year?

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Are the Warriors the ones who will finally stop the unstoppable?

Can they dethrone Konawaena?

“I hope so,” all-BIIF point guard Kelsie Imai said Monday standing outside the school gym. “We have the talent, we just have to work on our teamwork a little more.”

Heck, considering Waiakea gained more than it lost, including adding a former Wildcat, while Konawaena said goodbye to two of the state’s best players, might the Warriors be the BIIF favorite?

“I don’t think so,” coach Brandon Kauhi said. “Everything runs through Konawaena first, they’re the four-time state champions, they are always well-coached. They are always going to put a strong team forward. Until they get defeated.”

That hasn’t happened, in BIIF play, in more than a decade, back when Imai’s passion for basketball was first being stoked. She has a unique perspective on Waiakea’s program, and in the offseason she gained an inside look at Konawaena’s, playing for the architect of the dynasty on coach Bobbie Awa’s club team.

“It was different, Aunty Bobbie, she’s really great,” said Imai, a junior. “I understand how they win a lot. She knows the game very well and she puts her players where they are supposed to be put.”

The Konawaena conundrum is a natural talking point for the Warriors, who should be better than last year, when they came close to knocking off the Wildcats in the regular season in Kealakekua. Imai and Kauhi say the team is primarily focused on what it can control. However, Imai can offer a scouting report on Konawaena after playing for Awa. She came away impressed with the Wildcats’ younger players, especially the freshmen.

“We can’t take them cheap, because they have talent,” she said.

Kauhi enters his third season with a team that is junior strong with Imai as its unquestioned leader.

Waiakea ended a six-year HHSAA drought last season and not only returns virtually intact – Keani Midel transferred to Hilo – but it added a couple of strong transfers. Tayvia Cabatbat, who sat out last season after seeing playing time at Konawaena the year before as a freshman, will share the backcourt duties with Imai, and Destany Williams, a promising freshman point guard for Keaau last season, will be one of the first players to sub a starter.

The Warriors have the luxury of bringing an all-BIIF player off the bench, as 5-foot-7 sophomore forward Jazelle Dorser will be looked upon for instant offense. Dorser was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Imai last season.

“Jazelle is always hungry, so coming off the bench, her and Destany, they just look to score off the bench and that’s the kind of attitude they have to have,” Kauhi said.

Junior Keeli-Jade Smith, 5-8, will start at center and is perhaps Waiakea’s most improved starter, and the forwards are junior Bethany Honma and senior Zaelynn Lui-Cabinatan. All three were honorable mention all-BIIF players as was Williams.

Kauhi sounded like he would be surprised if Cabatbat weren’t in the mix for all-league honors as well.

“We’re taking a more a defensive approach this year,” Kauhi said. “Cabatbat is a hounding defensive player. In your face.”

The Warriors aren’t the tallest bunch, but Kauhi feels they can overcome that at the state level with athleticism, and he thinks many teams will opt to guard them with zone defenses, challenging Waiakea to knock down shots.

Senior guard Claire Kaneshiro is probably the team’s best knock-down shooter, and senior forward Madison Hwang and junior guard Keighsha Walker will provide depth as well as Kauhi looks to take advantage of a deep group of reserves.

“I feel confident in the girls,” Kauhi said. “It’s up to the coaches to get them where they need to be. We have to go out there and execute and produce.”

Waiakea started its preseason last week at the Warriors’ junior varsity tournament, and never allowed more than 20 points in wins against Keaau, Kealakehe and Honokaa.

Waiakea’s varsity tournament runs Thursday-Saturday. The Warriors will have split squads the first two days in the all-BIIF affair, before coming together Saturday night for a marquee matchup against Hilo. Waiakea also has a preseason trip to Oahu at the end of the month, entering tournaments hosted by Sacred Hearts and Kaiser.

In 2017, Waiakea’s nucleus stayed together and played during the summer, and Imai said the sisterhood was evident from the start. This year, many players went their separate ways during the club season, and they didn’t all come together until last Thursday.

“It’s a little different, there are more cliques on the side,” Imai said. “But hopefully when we go to Oahu, everything will come together.”

Imai knows a little something about sisterhood.

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Her two older sisters, Kirsty and Kamie, both played for the Warriors before going on to play at UH-Hilo. Kamie Imai, in fact, was a central player the last time Konawaena lost a BIIF game, back in the 2008 league final.

“Since I was 5 years old, I always wanted to play,” Kelsie Imai said, “because my sisters played, and I was always at this gym. I would go to practices. It just inspired me. Watching my sisters play in college, I knew I wanted to go to college with a basketball scholarship.”