It was a tradition for the girls in the Imai family, this thing of attracting a scholarship to play basketball in college, so nobody was surprised when the youngest, Kelsie, was a freshman at Waiakea High School and came in with a purpose.
Her oldest sister, Kirsty, 28, took some scholarship money to talk across the street and attend the University of Hawaii at Hilo where she played for the Vulcans before becoming a teacher at Hilo Intermediate.
Kamie, 27, accepted a scholarship to play at Utah State, and then transferred to UH-Hilo. Kirk Jr., the lone son in the family, has always been supportive, as well.
Now Kelsie is headed to Oahu for a collegiate career at UH that has become significant, and a little dizzying, all at once.
“It’s a little weird,” she said the other day in the Waiakea gym where she officially signed her offer, “to think it’s been 10 years since someone from here went to UH, but I feel ready, I’m pretty excited about it.”
The weirdness comes in layers, as it turns out, and not just the part about her high school being a part of the Rainbows’ program for the first time in a decade.
There’s also the even more unusual issue that when she shows up for the first day of practice, Kelsie Imai will be the only player from the State of Hawaii on the roster of the University of Hawaii women’s basketball team.
“It’s like I’m the outsider, in a way,” she said with a kind of droll smile that suggested it felt as unusual to her as it does to everyone else, “but as a freshman coming in, I’d probably feel a little that way, anyhow. It will be all new, I’ll have to work my way into the team, into playing time.”
The accountability for the roster composed entirely of players from the mainland, save Imai, is a consequence of the recruiting of coach Laura Beeman, a well-known junior college coach from California who put in two years as an assistant at University of Redlands prior to 15 years at Mount San Antonio Junior College where she carved out a record that won’t soon be eclipsed.
Beeman won a remarkable 78 percent of her games at Mount SAC, going 390-110 with 10 conference titles and four California Community College state championships, including three in a row.
It is a hugely competitive challenge to recruit well at the community college level in California, but Beeman consistently outperformed most of her rivals over her decade-and-a-half there, a record of accomplishment that landed her the UH job seven years ago.
Her California recruitment was completely understandable. She knew where to go and who to look for, and nobody was complaining in those first four years at Manoa when Beeman’s teams went 78-47, but the last three seasons have gone in the other direction, with a 39-53 record. Just last year, the Rainbow Wahine went 15-17 after two 12-18 seasons, making the case that she may have turned the direction back to where it had been, back to what Beeman produced when she first arrived in Honolulu.
If that’s the case, Kelsie Imai may represent something more than just a talented point guard from Waiakea, because she is the first freshman basketball player from the state to accept a scholarship at UH in the time Beeman has been there.
Maybe, as the song goes, this could be the start of something new?
“Maybe so,” Imai said, “its pretty crazy to me that I’ll be the only (in-state) one on the roster, but it’s not something I’m thinking about all that much, I just want to get in there and try to be a part of it.
“It is kind of weird though,” she said, “that I had to go to Chicago, California, Oregon and all these other places to get the phone call from Coach.”
Imai played softball and volleyball, in season, but she was dedicated to basketball 12 months a year, shooting hoops in down times in those other sports, while playing on basketball travel teams and attending clinics throughout her high school summers.
It was on one of those travel teams trips that she got off a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles when her cellphone rang. Someone from UH wanted to put her on a call with Beeman.
“Definitely took the call,” Imai recalled, “and coach Beeman was like, ‘I’m offering you a scholarship to come to UH,’ and I was like, ‘OK.’
“She said, ‘Does that mean you’re verbally committing to us?’ and I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said I needed to talk to my family. I did that on the way home.”
It was the only Division I scholarship she had been offered at that point, though she had offers from Hawaii-Hilo, Concordia and Hawaii-Pacific, all Division II schools.
The conversation didn’t last all that long. UH-Manoa offered something she couldn’t, or at least didn’t want to refuse.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” she said. “I sort of wanted to go away for school, but at the same time I wasn’t sure I wanted to be too far away. This way, I’m at a D-I school, I’m away from home, yet I’m close enough to have my family come see me play or get home in an hour or so if I want to.”
Her mother, Kelli, is at that crossroads parents long for and then wish they could extend maybe a little more, simultaneously.
“It’s bittersweet,” Kelli said. “I’ve been doing this since 2004 with our kids, going to team meetings in volleyball, softball, basketball, all the trips, I think I’ve been in 40-something parents meetings over the years and there’s one more to go when Kelsie plays her last season of softball.
“You know, it’s a different generation now, everything has changed since Kirsty went to UHH. Now, there’s so much that is done online, with YouTube videos, DVDs, streaming and all the rest, but she’s worked for it and I’m happy for her, obviously. She knows she will have to fight for anything she gets, but she’s a good fighter, she’ll be ready.”
Imai will take a spot at the back of point guard line, where freshman Nae Nae Calhoun has taken over the starting position, averaging 5.0 points through four games, with modest totals of 3.3 assists and 3.0 turnovers per game. Calhoun is just getting started and Imai was given no promises.
“I was just told I might play some guard, might play some point guard coming in, then it will be up to me to earn a spot,” she said. “I’m good with that, I like the competition, I’m going to give it my best shot.”
If it hits the mark, she will always be Beeman’s first in-state freshman, but she may not be the last.
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