Kohala doesn’t have much size, but that rarely stops its basketball team from challenging for a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II championship.
Most of the Cowboys’ size disappeared with the graduation of reigning BIIF Player of the Year Chris Roxburgh, a 6-foot-3 forward and one of two departed starters; Weston Cazimero was the other. In place of height, Kohala has big-game experience and loads of speed.
Last season, Kalai Kapeliela, Makani Kualii and Kealan Figueroa all stepped up in the BIIF Division II championship game against Hawaii Prep, which won 73-64 despite the production from Kohala’s trio. Kapeliela and Kualii each scored 18 points, and Figueroa, then a freshman point guard, added 10 points.
It was Kohala’s first trip back to the Hawaii High School State Athletic Association state tournament since a run of three straight BIIF championships from 2007-2009.
Last year, the Cowboys fell to eventual state champion Kalaheo 52-39 in the first round and to St. Francis 72-67 in consolation action.
Kapeliela and Kualii are among four seniors on a relatively young squad. Besides Figueroa, guard Justin Agbayani and forward Hana Carvalho saw significant playing time as freshmen. They’re all seasoned sophomores, providing a nice nucleus.
Carvalho, Kualii and sophomore Mikala Jordan are all 6 feet tall or barely there, if they style their hair skyward, joked coach Don Fernandez. Kapeliela, the sharp-shooting forward, is 5-10.
“We have to work together. I want us to get to the BIIF championship,” Kapeliela said. “We have to work hard every day at practice and play together. It’s hard to win for us because we’re small. We’re not too big. We have to block out and run to get the other team tired.”
The Cowboys did enough of that in the first round of the Keaau-Waiakea Classic on Wednesday, blitzing the Cougars B team 45-12.
Figueroa flashed his athleticism in a 27-2 first quarter explosion, gathering three steals, scoring twice in transition and sinking a 5-foot pull-up jumper.
Then the Cowboys worked on ball movement in their half-court sets, passing and cutting without the ball touching the floor until clean shots opened up. It’s a style of play that well-known New York Knicks ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony would not prefer.
But it was done for a reason, besides reinforcing the related lesson of patience is a virtue.
“We wanted to perfect our passing and come to the ball,” Kapeliela said. “We all work together as a family and create for each other on the court and share the ball.”
Besides athleticism, unselfish play — making the extra pass — has long been a Kohala trademark. That and its ability to create turnovers and convert them into easy scores.
“The one thing we do well is run. Every practice, we run,” Figueroa said. “We run and defend. That’s probably our strength. Coach says we’re all family, and we don’t have to be selfish.
“Because we don’t have size we have to defend and press. We have a lot of small guys, so we can run more and get steals and turn them into baskets. As the point guard, I try to bring leadership and help out my teammates — on defense, talking to them and on offense, just leading them.”
Figueroa sparks the Cowboys not only with his athleticism and leadership but also with his hustle, something that Fernandez values as much as his precious Chuck Taylor shoes.
“He plays hard and gives 110 percent every night,” Fernandez said. “He’s not afraid of anybody, and hopefully his play will bleed off on the others. We just don’t want him to get too excited and get into foul trouble.
“And Kalai is one of our better shooters. Hopefully, he can light it up for us when we need it. I get on him about defense. Him and a lot of other kids, like Hana, Makani and Mikala, play a lot defensive positions. Normally, we get speed every year. We want to make it a full-court game.”
Besides the ability to score and defend, there’s another philosophy in place at Kohala that makes the Cowboys well-rounded players.
“I want to teach them about each other, to play for each other and work hard,” Fernandez said. “Sometimes when you get disturbed, you play for yourself. I want them to play for each other and represent the community.
“No matter the year, every team has a different style and players. But you always have to work together. Hopefully, that carries on in their lives, too.”