Editor’s note: Bill O’Rear is a former UHH men’s basketball standout and a longtime sports editor at the Tribune-Herald.
For the past 44 years, the University of Hawaii at Hilo has fielded a men’s basketball team, initially at the NAIA level and later at the NCAA Division II level.
The Vulcans have been successful at both levels — NAIA (1976-96) and NCAA DII (1997-present) — with some talented teams playing in conference playoffs, regionals, the NAIA national championships, and/or the NCAA DII national tournament.
Along the way, the Vulcans have had many outstanding players who have been honored by the conference, region, or national level, with several players earning All-American honors.
For the first time, based on my past experience as a longtime Big Island sportswriter and having seen every Vulcans team play over the past 40 years, plus drawing input from the three most successful UH-Hilo coaches in school history, “The Vulcans All-Time Top Men’s Basketball Players” list is being announced.
The selections are based on a player’s overall career, season/postseason honors, team’s success and winning intangibles.
Former coaches Jimmy Yagi (218-87 record), Jeff Law (209-188) and Bob Wilson (153-137) provided input. All three won conference titles and played in regional or national tournaments during their tenures. They combined to recruit the majority of players on the list.
Here follows the top Vulcan men’s basketball players in school history.
• Jay “The Bird” Bartholomew, a 6-foot-4 forward, who played 2 seasons (1976-78) under Jimmy Yagi. He averaged 20.3 points per game (1st in career ppg average) and scored 1,136 points (4th overall) in his career. He helped lead the Vulcans to 2 straight NAIA district titles and 2 trips to the NAIA National Championships in Kansas City, Mo. Earned back-to-back first team All-District honors as well as All-American (honorable mention, second team) honors, respectively. First Vulcan basketball player inducted into the UH Hilo Athletic Hall of Fame (1993). The Vulcans were 50-8 (23-3, 27-5) during his 2 years, including upsets over DI Nebraska (71-66) and New Mexico (81-78). He had a school-record 33 dunks in his 2 seasons as a Vulcan, including six in a 101-80 win over rival Chaminade in his senior year. He transferred from Santa Rosa Junior College to play at UH Hilo in the season (1976-77) that college basketball reinstated the dunk.
• Merriel Jenkins, a 6-7 forward, who played 3 seasons (1997-99) at UHH, the first two under Coach Jim Forkum and then the final year under new Coach Jeff Law. He is the school’s all-time leader in points (1,538), rebounds (621), blocked shots (188), field goals made (561) and free throws made (385). He averaged 19.9 per game over 3 seasons on struggling teams that had a combined 38-52 record. As a senior, he earned first team all-conference and DII All-American honors. He was also named a preseason All-American heading into his senior year by The Sporting News and Street & Smith basketball magazine. He transferred to UHH as a sophomore and finished his collegiate career there.
• Todd Zirbel, a 6-6 forward, who played 2 seasons (1978-80) for Coach Yagi. He averaged 17.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game during his career, including scoring a school-record 664 points in his senior year. He scored 1,214 career points, 3rd best in school history. He helped lead the Vulcans to a 27-8 record as a junior and runner-up finish in the district; and a 29-7 record as a senior and district title as well as a berth in the NAIA National Championships in Kansas City, Mo. He was a 2-time first team all-district selection and also earned second team NAIA All-American honors as a senior. Transferred from Golden West College in Huntington Beach, Calif. to UHH. A member of the UH Hilo Athletic Hall of Fame (1994).
• Jim DeGroot, a versatile 6-5 point guard, who played 1 season (1986-87) for Coach Bob Wilson. He averaged 9.8 points per game and was often the team leader in scoring, assists and/or rebounds in many games that season while leading the Vulcans to the district title and a berth in the NAIA National Championships in Kansas City, Mo. The Vulcans advanced to the 32-team tourney’s quarterfinals — the furthest a Vulcan squad has ever advanced in national tournament play. He was named second team all-district and second team NAIA All-American. He transferred from Phillips University in Oklahoma to UH Hilo. He previously led Phillips University to a district title and berth in the NAIA National Championships while earning all-district and All-American honors. A member of the UH Hilo Athletic Hall of Fame (1998).
• Scott Prather, a 6-0 point guard out of Maui High and the only player in school history to start 4 straight years (1999-2002). He played under Coach Jeff Law. He averaged 12.5 points and 5.2 assists per game during his career. He finished with 1,330 total points (2nd in school history) as well as 189 steals (1st all-time), 384 assists (2nd all-time), 346 made free throws (2nd all-time) and 146 3-pointers (4th all-time). As a junior, he earned honorable mention all-conference honors. Then as a senior, he earned first team all-conference honors. A member of the UH Hilo Athletic Hall of Fame (2012).
• Osadonor “Skip” Esene, a 6-6 forward, who played 2 seasons (2003, ‘05) under Coach Jeff Law.
• Gilbert Hicks, a 6-4 forward, who played 2 seasons (1975-77) for Coach Yagi.
• Mark Lovelace, a 6-4 point guard, who played 2 seasons under Coach Yagi.
• Fred Crawford, a 6-6 forward, who played 2 seasons (1992-94) under Coach Wilson.
• Vincent Ray, a 6-5 guard, who played 2 seasons (1986-88) under Coach Wilson.
• Jeff Garner, a 6-4 guard, who played 2 seasons (1991-93) for Coach Wilson.
• Tony Thomas, a 6-4 guard, who played 2 seasons (1988-89) under Coach Bob Wilson.
• Alan Thomas, a 6-4 guard, who played 2 seasons (1999-2002) under Coach Law.
• Alex Cabagnot, a 6-2 point guard, who played 2 seasons (2003-05) under Coach Law.
• Justin Smith, a 6-6 forward, who played 2 seasons (2009-11) under Coach Law.
• Trevor Wright, a 6-1 combo guard, who played 2 seasons (1988-90) under Coach Wilson.
• Nelson Wong, a 6-4 forward out of Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama who played 4 seasons (1987-91) under Coach Wilson.
Other Vulcans who were considered for the list:
Tom Zeimantz, James Bradley, Ia Saipaia, John Smith, Justin Griffin, Marcus Rogers, Marcus Owens, Neville Brandt, Pat Fitzgerald, Bill Walling, Mike Redwood, Andy Ground, Gene Arceneaux, John Jones, Rene Sanchez, Matt Smith, Terry Huffman, Brian Austin, Mario Claytor, Parker Farris, Ed Patrick, Mick Corkeron, Jay DeMaestri, Russ Harper, Sean Grey, Eric White, Kelly Thomas, Andy Smith, Kyle Bartholomew, Mike Thrower, Steve Cavalin, Zachary Wilde, Sam Wilhoite, Ryan Hogue, Andrew Gipson, Maceo Thomas, Todd Miller, Booker Waugh, Rodney Odrick, Cris Murphy, DeShaun Hall, Brian Ngo, CJ Brown, Jacob Briggs, Brian Ishola, Kupaa Harrison, Stanley Ibia, Ryan Abrahams, Joe Travis, Mario Long, Salim Gloyd, Larry Bush, Tre Johnson, Ryley Callaghan, Vince Alvarado, Paul Lee, Andy Thompson, Kris Terrell, Brian Lewis, Ray Donnelly, Aukai Wong, Kimo Keiter-Charles, Randan Berinobis, Brian Graham, Frank McKinney, Travis Sobers, West Hawthorne, Joe Marsh, Justin Dobson, Terrence Troupe.