HONOKAA — The memories do not go away over time. They haunt the new coach at all hours as she considers what seems a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape, from what she knew.
It’s disorienting and seems inexplicable to her. How could this happen? Where am I?
Last month, two days before practice opened statewide for high school basketball, Keisha Kanekoa, a physical education teacher at her Honokaa High School alma mater, received an email from the school principal that said girls basketball coach Aaron Tanimoto had resigned for personal reasons — he still teaches at the school — and the Dragons needed an interim coach, immediately.
It was as though, at that moment, she were in a concert hall full of people and all the heads turned to look at her. They all knew she was the one. She knew she was the one, too, but the landscape had changed. Everything had been undone.
Along with a small handful of other players, Kanekoa is recognized by anyone who follows Honokaa girls basketball as one of the best players to ever lace up a pair of sneakers for the Dragons.
She had a standout college career at Hawaii-Manoa, that began with her leading the ‘Bows in scoring with 21 points in a win over Washington, her first game as a freshman. In her time there, after the freshman season, she led Hawaii in minutes played each year and started every game for her sophomore, junior and senior seasons. In her last year, she led the team in minutes, free throw percentage (.774), and assists (102), while finishing second in scoring (11.3).
She led the team in various departments each year while UH struggled to 40-81 record in her time at Manoa.
She was a bright spot, someone to build around for four years at UH, but as she accepted the interim appointment at Honokaa last month, she realized the strength and pride she was a part of for the Dragons is all gone now.
There’s a lesson in all of this that is remindful of a story about football coach Bill Snyder taking over the Kansas State program in 1989 at a point the team had lost 27 consecutive games.
“You may have heard it’s one of the toughest jobs in the country,” then-athletic director Steve Miller, told Snyder in a story on the school’s football history in the College Football Encyclopedia. “It’s not. It’s the toughest.”
This is not to say that Honokaa is the toughest girls basketball coaching job on the Big Island, but the lasting point is what Snyder did to make it better. Snyder built a program on the premise that the smallest victories would eventually lead to bigger ones, and he pulled it off, turning KSU into a top 10 team in the 1990s and into the first few years of the 21st century.
Snyder found ways to make practices more challenging in ways his players could see spoke of improvement. If they could develop ways to cut down on turnovers offensively, to get off the field a little more often on third downs, those were tiny victories until the wins started coming.
The advantage Snyder had was a national infusion of junior college players who could upgrade the talent level until recruiting took hold.
There are no JC transfers who can help Kanekoa. Worse, there has been a trend in Waimea — where Honokaa has traditionally drawn a lot of players — for parents to send their young students to private schools or public charter schools. Enrollment has plunged, losing seasons mounted up. Daphne Honma, the coaching architect of that success, took the startup job as coach at the University of Hawaii-Hilo and over time, Honokaa was not the fun place it used to be.
It wasn’t just a deterioration in winning that put Honokaa in this spot, it was also the stream of potential talent that has dried up. Kanekoa has a total of seven players turning out, only one who plays year round.
“This is, basically, rock bottom,” said Honma, now the vice-principal. “It won’t be an easy road for her, it’s just tough, but she knows that and she knows she isn’t being forced into anything.”
Still, things have changed and not in a good way for girls basketball at Honokaa, not just on the court but in the community.
“This town means a lot to me,” Kanekoa said one day last week, “basketball means a lot to me. Basketball made me who I am today, the first person in my family to get a college degree and I got it without spending a penny, thanks to basketball.
“I was sheltered,” Kanekoa said, “I knew nothing, I had no idea about the outside world, really, but Daphne exposed me to the possibilities, you really have no idea — I have no idea — of who or what I would have become without basketball.
“We need to get that passion back in our players, in our community.”
When Honma was coaching the Dragons to BIIF championship contention, girls basketball made for a hot time in Honokaa on game nights. The gym would fill, the crowds were boisterous and supportive, and as much as the team built up the fans, the fans also built up the team.
All of that is gone now. Kanekoa has a full day of teaching PE, and after that, coaching the girls team means another 4-5 hours of work right after school, into the evening, every day.
Successful teams always start with a feeder program and Honokaa has no such structure, though Honma has a new organization seeking to develop clinics and leagues, but it is probably a couple years from beginning to bear fruit in the form of excited players with a basketball background.
Kanekoa spent time at Punahou, she’s seen the program at Iolani, she understands the spot she is in.
“It would be so much easier at so many other schools where they have funding, they have booster clubs raising money, real support systems, but we have none of that,” she said. “Those things have to be built up.
“Do I want to invest my life in this?” she said, “it’s a question I have to say I’m still asking, it’s something I’m trying to figure out for myself.”
While the reality of the workload continues to dawn on her, so does a flicker of hope.
“You know, I can see improvement from the first day,” she said. “The attention is better, the effort is improving.
“We were a powerhouse at one time, we had a blue collar-type work ethic, we were like, ‘Shut up and play and be humble about it,’ and it worked for us.”
She knows success would be full, noisy gyms, teams that played smart and battled to the last second, win or lose.
As she looks out at seven players willing to be a part of it, she has to wonder if she is the one to turn it all around.
The immediate answer is yes. She is in place, she’s doing it, at least on an interim basis. If she is the right person for the long haul, she’s waiting to for that realization to come with a bare bones roster in an empty gym where the community no longer seems to care as it once did.
Little victories would be huge.
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