WAIMEA — Fact and fallacy are supposed to live in different neighborhoods, but up here in the North Country, they exist and grow together at Kohala High School where, Kihei Kapeliela begins a new season Monday as coach of the boys’ basketball team.
Factually speaking, it’s true, but if you pull back the lens just a small distance, it becomes obvious that in reality, the new coach represents something very close to a distinction without a difference.
He’s spent the last 11 years as coach of the Cowboys’ junior varsity and assistant for coach Don Fernandez on the Kohala varsity team, after playing for the school.
Thanks to advertising, we tend to think of new as something different, maybe a change of direction, an upgrade of some sort, at least a different way of looking at things, but only one part of that comes close.
Kapeliela is, indeed, formally the new coach, but his immersion in the tradition-rich program is such that, if you were able to watch Kohala play over these last several years without seeing the coach on the sideline, you probably wouldn’t think anything has changed.
“Our system is our system,” Kapeliela said last week, “we believe in it, our players believe in it and it’s what we are going to do, just like we’ve always done.”
Monday becomes the official moment of change, but for the players, it will be like last year, the year before and the year before that. It starts with conditioning drills and you won’t hear a basketball hitting the hardwood.
“No ball, just conditioning, the ball comes later,” Kapeliela said, “because of our system, we need to get prepared to play our system.”
If you’ve watched any BIIF basketball over the years, you should already be aware of this, but for everyone else, the Kohala system, developed and refined by Fernandez, plays hard to the kind of body types the Cowboys typically receive.
Deconstruct that and you might say the Kohala system plays to its generational basketball weakness.
“We don’t have tall guys,” Kapeliela said, “never have, so Coach Don looked at it and came up with a plan, but it takes work.
“If you’re not tall, you have to be quick, so that’s what we work on. Short and slow isn’t going to get you anywhere.”
The system leans heavily on defense, steals, turnovers and transition baskets. Set plays in a half court offense? Sure, there are some, but that’s a fallback position when there isn’t a loose ball picked up and an immediate outlet pass.
Kohala presses defensively all over the court, which can be a game changer if done right and a disaster if done wrong, owing to the rules of the day which have, in recent years, relied more extensively on the concept of offensive freedom of movement.
“The refs call everything,” he said, “to the point where you almost can’t touch (the opponent), so that means we have to be smart in our press, we have to be quick on our feet and our footwork and positioning has to be all synced up.
“You don’t need a basketball for that,” Kapeliela said, “but you need some time to get it into everybody’s head, to make it all work together.”
The best news for the new head coach is that the system works and he’s one of those rarities in that he’s taking over a basketball program with a full cupboard.
The Cowboys went 13-5 last season for Fernandez, qualifying for the state tournament despite the fact that they had seven players who were freshmen and sophomores. They compete for the Division II BIIF title, but along the way they toppled D-I programs Hilo and Konawaena, before being beaten by eventual BIIF D-II champion Hawaii Prep.
His roster includes a handful of players steeped in Kohala hoops tradition from their fathers who played for the school, and it doesn’t hurt that last year’s BIIF Division II co-player of the year, Oshen Cazimero, a freshman at the time, is among the returnees.
“Our style dictates the work we put in on conditioning,” Kapeliela said. “It sort of starts and ends with ‘suicides,’ back and forth.”
No, not those kind of suicides. In basketball, suicides are physical training drills in which you go from your baseline to the foul line, back to the baseline, off to the half-court line, back to the baseline, off to the far foul line and back and then baseline-to-baseline and back again.
“Everybody needs to do it in 30 seconds or less,” Kapeliela said. “It won’t be that fast for everyone at the start, but we do it every day, every practice, and we keep getting faster at it because we have to.”
It’s simple arithmetic, at some point. Playing this exhausting style of defense takes a physical toll, you can’t do it for the entire game, so Kohala players run and work to stay in position for a couple minutes, then check out to catch a breath while a fresh body enters to continue the defensive assault.
Kapeliela expects a 9- or 10-player rotation to get the job done, so the kids who show up for conditioning know, or will soon realize, that if they can endure the conditioning, if they can build up their endurance while learning proper footwork and positioning, they’re probably going to play, and that can be a motivator.
Another example of the fallacy of newness around Kapeliela is that he’s just starting to work with this group. They’ve been working together since the end of the previous season, with a club team in a summer league that runs from April through June, then there’s another that starts in September. These are club-affiliated teams, meaning they are not exclusively Kohala players, but the system is the same, the defense never rests and this summer one of the teams won a 15-and-under tournament in Las Vegas, while another claimed runner-up position.
“We expect to win,” he said, “that’s not bragging or anything, that’s our tradition and our expectations brought to us by our fans who are always there, always supportive.”
You know the Kohala fans base, they stick out like 6-foot-8 player in the middle, wearing a Cowboys uniform, which is something that has never happened. But the fan base?
“It doesn’t matter where we go,” Kapeliela said, “if we play in Hilo or Kona, doesn’t matter, we always have more fans cheering for us than the home team has cheering for them. That’s a motivator, and it also creates big expectations.”
He encourages his kids who make it through the program from the first day of conditioning to the last buzzer at the end of the season to use him as reference when they look for jobs.
“You don’t have to be a starter, you just have to be willing to work,” Kapeliela said. “I can tell an employer about work ethic, about what kind of a teammate you are, about how you listen and apply what you have learned on a daily basis.
“It’s a lot of stuff you can learn about life just by going through what we put you through,” he said. “I will never stop being your coach, you will never stop being my player. It’s all about working at it to build the future.”
That started a long time ago for Kapeliela, and for 25 or so Cowboys’ roster aspirants, it restarts Monday.
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