Based on your own perspective of counting years, Hilo High School’s boys basketball team either won the last state championship of the 20th century or the first state championship of the 21st century.
Whichever perspective you prefer, we can all count to 20, and that’s how many seasons it’s been since a squad in the biggest classification from the Big Island ended the season as state champions in the year 2000.
It isn’t the case that the Vikings previously dominating the state, but it is the case that Big Island teams used to be in the mix, they would start the season with the idea that if they played well together, maybe got a break here or there and avoided injuries, they could play with anybody.
Waiakea lasted the longest this season but went out with two defeats last week.
Hilo won a state tile in 1964, when some of us were alive, and again in 1991, so while they weren’t a team you could pencil in preseason as a likely state semifinalist, they were formidable, the kind of team you looked past at your own peril.
It was like that 20 seasons ago when Jason Mandaquit played for the Vikings on the last big-school state championship boys’ hoop team from the Big Island.
“We were really good,” Mandaquit said, perhaps stating the obvious. “Our starters were really good, but the big thing, to me, was that we all played together, we were a real team. Nobody cared who scored or got the rebound or whatever, as long as it was us.”
They developed a core belief and they were able to “stick” with it, as we will see.
This is the part where everyone tends to say, “That’s what it takes, a team that plays together and is unselfish can go as far as it wants,” but it’s not like that in the real world.
It makes sense that teams that bond will find higher levels of success, but at the same time the stories from coaches in various sports about their favorite teams often relate to teams that were awful, but managed to stay together and get the most out of what they have.
Coaches love teams that play like teams, whether they win or lose, and sometimes playing together and sacrificing for each other can’t make up for a lack of talent or depth when it comes to winning and losing.
That Hilo team in 2000 was no fluke, it didn’t sneak in the back door and surprise everybody. The Vikings were 14-1, beat Saint Louis by 13 in the championship game and in the postseason media poll, they got all 40 first place votes over 12-3 Saint Louis, the statewide team with the next best record.
“It’s a different world now,” said Hilo High coach Bruce Ferreira, whose team took a quick playoff exit this season. “Almost everything has changed. There were times in the past we would get 70, up to 100 kids turning out for the team, this year, we had 21. Everything’s different.”
Those are facts speaking, no duck or dodge by Ferreira. Before the turn of the century, the one thing they could always count on was a large turnout from a well-entrenched feeder system through Parks and Recreation leagues and club teams.
Then there was a matter of attrition to those numbers induced by the construction of Keaau High School and Kamehameha Schools Hawaii. Simple arithmetic explains how the clutch of available talent became like a water bucket with two more leaks in the bottom.
On top of all that, the reality of the time is that promising young athletes are often advised to focus on just one sport and train in that sport 12 months a year to enhance their college scholarship potentials.
“There was also a gap in (feeder program) coaching,” Ferreira said. “A lot of those guys who were doing that got up in age and had to move on and it wasn’t like younger guys came rushing in.
“Today, it’s so much different, kids want to play on their devices all day, they’re on social media. I don’t feel they are as competitive as they used to be, if they don’t think they can make the team, they don’t bother turning out.
“We used to have all these kids turning out and you could only take so many, so you made cuts, but you would see those (cuts) players come back next year,” he said. “Today, more often than not, if you cut a kid, they will quit, you’ll never see them again.”
Ferreira isn’t exaggerating.
“We had 80 kids turning out (in the 1999-2000 season),” Mandaquit said, “and we were a team that understood our roles. We had a lot of two-sport athletes and we just went out and competed, hard.”
And then there was the visual symbol of togetherness. After the Vikings lost their one game in 2000, assistant coach Paul McCarty produced a stick and snapped it in half, saying that’s what happens when you don’t play as a team.
Then he gathered 13 sticks, representing the whole roster.
“Everybody had a stick,” Mandaquit said, “everybody could be broken, but when he put those 13 sticks together, it couldn’t be broken, no way.”
That visual symbol guided the Vikings to a state championship.
But new club teams, like Man Up, Mandaquit’s group, and Rise Above are making the efforts to get younger players involved. They travel to the mainland, enter tournaments and along the way they get better, which is an improvement from the times Ferreira has known when 15 or 20 aspirants have shown up for tryouts, including a few who had never been on a basketball team at any level.
“It’s getting better,” Ferreira said. “We had three freshmen on the varsity team, our JV team only lost one game and there’s a 9th grade class coming up that’s really good.”
People will always respond here. The new school openings dispersed talent, the club team collapse years ago has given way to new club teams.
Regrettably, the young people who have become absorbed by social media, devices, all the rest, may be a lost cause. You can lose a game online and nobody knows, but if you fail on the court, infant of everyone, there’s no place to hide.
It takes a certain amount of courage to enter the arena, make a mistake, learn from it and try to improve to be a part of a team. It requires effort and a willingness to trust others.
We could use a little more of that these days and not just in high school basketball.
Tips, suggestions, whistleblower insights? Contact Bart at firstname.lastname@example.org