It’s a qualification that makes most coaches roll their eyes, and UH-Hilo’s David Kaneshiro is no exception.
But it needs to be said: On paper, the Vulcans’ women’s basketball team could be poised to take a sizable step forward.
Of course, games aren’t played on paper.
“You said it,” Kaneshiro joked Wednesday in his office. “You should write that.”
It’d be fair to call his program snake bit the past two seasons because of the players its lost to injury, but the 10th-year coach isn’t wasting any time worrying about that. His optimism is guarded, but, “The beginning of the season is exciting,” he said. “Just what do we have?”
For the first time, he has the chance to team up two of the program’s all-time most productive players, Allie Navarette and Kim Schmelz, while adding one of its most highly sought recruits, Konawaena alum Mikayla Tablit.
Likely dressing only eight players, the Vulcans will be far from fully loaded at 6 p.m. Friday when they open the season against Multnomah, an NAIA school from Oregon, at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. But the contest will mark the long-awaited return for Schmelz as well as a welcome debut for Tablit.
Both are working their way back from ACL injuries and were only cleared to return in the past three weeks. The Vuls struggled last season at 8-18, but the hope is that UHH should be better off because players such as guards Mandi Kawaha – a Hilo High alum who averaged 9.2 points per game while leading the team in assists (99) and steals (38) during her freshman season – and Sara Shimizu as well as forward Malia Lee had to step up in their absence.
“I think all the returnees are doing better than they did at the end of last season,” Kaneshiro said. “It’s just a matter of improving individually and bringing it all together.”
Kaneshiro credits Lee, a 5-foot-10 junior, for working on her conditioning and improving her quickness. Among the four newcomers – not counting Schmelz and Tablit – is Shauna Bribiescas. The 5-11 junior transfer averaged 15.8 points and 8.5 rebounds a game at Pima CC in Arizona and was a second team D-II NJCAA All-American selection, though Kaneshiro listed her as questionable for the opener as well as Saturday’s 2 p.m. exhibition with an ankle sprain.
Freshman Jenna Waki, a 5-6 guard, is set to see significant action the next two days, and Kaneshiro expects Makamae Gabriel, a Kamehameha-Hawaii alum, to give the Vuls a steady and consistent senior year after making eight starts a season ago.
While the Vuls will roll with eight players against Multnomah, it’s easy to focus on three because of their pedigree.
The gold standard
Navarette, a 6-0 post, is halfway through her career and already has etched her name up and down the UHH record books. After making first-team All-Pacific West Conference as a sophomore, she’s set her sights on loftier goals, both personally and team-wise.
“A lot of coaches are going to be keeping me on their maps and on their scouting reports, so I’m definitely trying to add a new dimension to my game,” Navarette said. “I’ve been trying to add more guard work, a guard skill-set, working on my game on the perimeter and on the wing. I’ve been feeling a little uncomfortable, so definitely trying to push myself with my ball-handling and my court vision.”
Navarette also earned Second Team All-West Region honors last year, averaging 19.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. She is a career 81.4% free throw shooter, and she added the 3-point shot to her arsenal last year.
Kaneshiro challenged her to improve defensively and said she’s delivered, and Navarette is also working to become more assertive.
“It’s a balance, I’m on my teammates, I’m encouraging them and pushing them,” she said, “but I’m definitely taking responsibility for myself and doing what I need to do as well.”
Navarette admits it can be easy to stay in acceptance mode at UHH, to think that winning isn’t obtainable. The Vuls’ last winning season was 2013, and their last trip to the PacWest tournament came in 2014.
“What I really love about this team is when we are in practice we’re pushing and competing and really making sure each other is better,” she said. “These new teammates, they just bring in such a refreshing outlook, drive and passion. It’s really nice to have these newcomers and say let’s turn this program around. Let’s get it.
“I think we’re going to have a really good team this year.”
Schmelz, a 5-8 guard, has a different game than Navarette, but she entered her junior season two years ago in a similar position. She averaged double-digits scoring as a freshman and put up one of the program’s most prolific scoring seasons as a sophomore, but Schmelz hurt her knee just two games into the 2017-18 season.
It’s been a long road back.
The lowest times came “probably (last season) when I was expected to play and come back and be ready,” Schmelz said. “A lot of little thing came up and kept bothering me and brought me down, and it really made me focus on what I want from life.”
One thing she didn’t want was to give up.
“My goal was always to come back and play,” she said. “I never wanted the injury to stop me and define the type of person and player I was.”
While Schmelz was limited in her mobility in varying degrees the past two seasons, she’s had an ample amount of time to polish her sweet jumper. Her 45 career 3-pointers rank fifth all-time at UHH, and, at long last, the number is set to climb again.
“It should be working,” she said of her jumper. “I just can’t wait to get back out there.”
Winning time again?
Tablit’s high school career was a breeze. The Wildcats never lost a game in claiming four state championships, but the fun stopped last season when she hurt her knee early on in practice.
“When I was at my low point I looked at it like I was never going to be the same,” the 5-5 guard said, “but my friends and family made me realize that though it was going to take a lot of work to get back where I was, it’s possible.”
Tablit said he’s 95% recuperated from her injury “with a lot to work on.” Because of the athletic nature of her game – she likes to push pace and play harassing defense – it may take her time to have the impact on games she became accustomed to in high school.
In the meantime, she hopes to bring “my leadership, my communication skills, just being a role player on the team.”
But Tablit has little doubt she will make it all the way back.
“I know I’m not there completely,” she said, “but once I get there, once I get into a groove, I told my parents, I’ll be back and there is nothing that is going to stop me.”