The early returns actually looked promising.
The first championship Saturday of 2020 included a picture-perfect day at Hawaii Prep for BIIF girls soccer. A blazing sun was blended with just the right amount of cooler mountain air, backed by a light wind, to keep things comfortable.
The year looked to be starting off right.
The following Saturday at HPA, for the boys soccer championships, was sunny enough, though blustery.
“This is Waimea weather,” HPA athletic director Stephen Perry confirmed as the wind gusted.
Instability, as it turned out, was lurking in the air, and it was about to go viral.
Just six weeks later, as the coronavirus pandemic started to take its grip across the globe, everything had been blown off course, and the Big Island sports scene, largely speaking, is still waiting to get back on track.
It goes without saying that the sports shutdown – from the BIIF to UH-Hilo to what was to have been a big summer of padding to everything in between – was the dominant and everlasting story of the year.
But instead of bemoaning all that what was canceled, let’s cherish – or merely recount, in some cases – what did happen as the Tribune-Herald takes its annual crack at its top 10 stories, this one for a year like no other.
1. Kohala’s crowning moment.
The Cowboys boys basketball program has long been the sporting pride of Kapaau, and this time the community got a prize fitting of its passion.
Late in the season, the Cowboys could only be called the second best team in North Hawaii. That Kohala would ascend to become the first state champion in school history was a testament to its grittiness and hard work, not to mention super sophomore O’shen Cazimero.
The Cowboys never figured out Hawaii Prep, but it beat everyone else on its BIIF schedule and became seasoned in playing close games along the way. Clutch play came in handy at the HHSAA D-II tournament in Honolulu, first in a narrow first-round win against Kauai and then as they tried to hold on in the championship game against Roosevelt at Stan Sheriff Center.
“They just believe, all 11 of them,” first-year coach Kihei Kapeliela said. “This was a team effort. We’re small, we’ve got to play team defense. That’s the only way we’re going to win.”
The final minute of the title game was a back-and-forth scramble, but Moses Emeliano hit a go-ahead free throw with 34 seconds remaining, Cazimero scored 23 points and when the dust settled the Cowboys owned a 51-48 victory to become the BIIF’s first state boys basketball champ since HPA in 2014.
Only this time it was a Kohala original.
“It’s really emotional, it’s really a big thing,” Cazimero said. “Being the first, it means history. We made history.
“This is for Kohala, baby.”
2. Navarette departs amid controversy
First came the news: Allie Navarette, the best women’s basketball player UH-Hilo has produced, left the Vulcans after her record-setting junior season to transfer to Metro State.
Then came her reason: When asked by the Tribune-Herald why she transferred, Navarette, a California native, alleged bullying and cited “treatment from teammates that only got worse,” specifically blaming “local players.”
“I can only speak for myself, but when you’re from the mainland, you get treated differently,” she said. “It was a lot of treatment from the local players. I told (coach Dave Kaneshiro) multiple times over three years.”
UHH athletic director Pat Guillen issued support for his coach and program and the manner in which Navarette’s departure was handled.
“The bottom line is she didn’t get along with some players,” Guillen said. “… She couldn’t work through it with the coach and players.”
In letters to the Tribune-Herald, UHH players Kim Schmelz and Jenna Waki, who both hail from the mainland, disputed their former teammate’s allegations and expressed disappointment at the way their program was being portrayed.
“I can tell you that being a mainlander, like myself from Sacramento, California, had nothing to do with the way the locals treated me,” Waki wrote. “The locals were the first people I became friends with on the team and now I consider them some of my best friends. As one of her ex-teammates, I can say that she never confronted us about her feelings and that her transfer was her own decision that did not include any part of actions to our knowing.”
3. Grover golden for Waiakea
A tip of the cap to Hilo and Waiakea boys soccer for what might have been the best contest of an abbreviated year, but it’s hard not to gush over John Grover.
Grover was one of the seniors who helped Warriors revive their program three years earlier, and his work wasn’t done until this awe-inspiring performance led them back to the top.
After spending time at fullback and on the bench with cramps in both legs, Grover scored two goals, some 60 seconds apart, past the midway point of the second half, to vault Waiakea in front in the BIIF D-I championship game. The Vikings scored a late equalizer, but Grover completed his hat trick in double overtime for a 3-2 win and the Warriors’ first title since 2006.
“This is way better than I thought it would be,” Grover said. “You almost coudn’t write a better ending. It was amazing. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe my senior year ended like this.”
4. Coleman in; Aiona out
UH-Hilo men’s basketball coach GE Coleman was let go in March after a seven-year tenure that saw the program fail to reach the Pacific West Conference playoffs.
UHH’s fifth basketball coach finished 69-112, including 12-14 records the past two seasons that left the Vuls on the cusp of reaching the postseason.
“The next step and goal is to get the men’s basketball program positioned to compete year in and year out for a Pacific West Conference championship and NCAA tournament berths,” Guillen said. “I am confident that we will find the right person in the upcoming search process.”
In May, the Vulcans announced the hiring of Kaniela Aiona, a Honokaa High alum who led a resurgence at Menlo College during his five years in Atherton, Calif.
“It starts with recruiting and culture, making sure we have the right fit at UHH,” Aiona told the Tribune-Herald.
He’s raring to finally get going in his first year on the job, with UHH’s delayed PacWest opener slated for mid-January.
5. ‘Cats back on top
Konawaena’s girls basketball juggernaut was derailed by Waiakea in 2019, but they weren’t to be denied a year later, at least not at the BIIF level.
The Wildcats raced to an unbeaten regular season behind Caiyle Kaupu and Kaliana Salazar-Harrell, and then they beat the Warriors in the final, holding on 43-42 to reclaim the BIIF D-I throne for its 11th title in 12 seasons.
Konawaena gave it a strong go in its bid for a 10th state title. Kaupu carried the Wildcats with 37 points, one shy of the HHSAA record, on 17-of-20 shooting in a 56-39 victory against Kahuku in the semifinals, before Iolani earned a repeat with a 55-46 win in the title game.
6. Rosario a Twin
This was a supposed to be a banner year for the Big Island in terms of the Major League baseball draft, but 2020 had other ideas.
Anxious to cut costs because of lost revenues during the pandemic, MLB owners cut the draft to just five rounds, instead of the usual 40. The move likely cost Hilo High’s Maui Ahuna and Waiakea’s Safea Villaruz-Mauai their draft spots and put their pro dreams on hold, but it didn’t stop the Warriors’ Kalai Rosario.
The Minnesota Twins took Rosario with the third-to-last pick (158th overall), making it an impressive eight consecutive years that a player with Hilo ties has been selected. Rosario ultimately bypassed a scholarship at Cal Baptist, sighing for a reported $270,000.
7. HPA double trouble again
Hawaii Prep state champion soccer success is becoming a yearly staple on this list, and Ka Makani are becoming so dominant that some of the competition is getting antsy they compete in D-II.
HPA’s girls cruised to their seventh consecutive HHSAA title, outscoring its competition 13-1, including a 4-1 win against Kauai in the final.
The boys followed suit with their fourth state crown in five years, with one of them of coming at the D-I. Ka Makani didn’t allow a goal in three games, finishing with a 2-0 conquest against Kapaa.
8. Two golds on mat
Hilo High’s Leona Toledo technically had the harder pull, but credit Kamehameha’s Ezekiel Anahu with a big takedown as well.
By any measure, each senior claimed gold at the HHSAA wrestling championships, where the mats usually turned to quick sand for Big Island boys wrestlers.
In an all-BIIF final in the 160-pound division, Anahu changed that, beating Hilo High junior Hana Kahookaulana 6-1 to become the first BIIF boys gold medalist since 2012.
Toledo dethroned two-time 225 state champion Tangiteina Niutupuivaha of Kahuku with a 7-2 win. Practically the only time she was thrown during the tournament came when coach Ryan Taniguchi, all of 140 pounds, picked her up after winning gold.
9. Not in the Cards
Even the Big Island’s big-time pro athlete wasn’t immune to being affected by the virus.
Kolten Wong and the St. Louis Cardinals got an abbreviated season in, but the club elected to decline Wong’s $12.5 million option, ending his seven-year tenure in St. Louis. John Mozeliak, St. Louis’ president of baseball operations, said the move was the “conservative and the safer play” for a club lacking flexibility as it looks to cut payroll because of lost revenues.
Wong likely won’t remain jobless for long, but he heads into 2021 as a free agent.
10. Kamehameha king again
Of all the BIIF sports, Division I boys basketball annually features one of the most competitive and deeper races.
Konawaena took its turn as the island’s pre-eminent boys program for a stretch, Waiakea had its run, and now its Kamehameha that has recent history on its side.
In a BIIF tournament that made a rare appearance at Kealakehe High’s gym, the Warriors won their second title in three years, getting 17 points from Izayah Chartrand-Penera for a 56-46 win against Konawaena.