When Julie McPeek talks to her Cowgirls, the echoes of Kohala basketball history ring in the air.
The second-year coach is a 1978 Kohala graduate and member of a Cowgirls team that made Big Island Interscholastic Federation history.
The Cowgirls captured the BIIF championship three years in a row from 1976-78 with McPeek as the starting point guard.
In 1977, the Hawaii High School Athletic Association held its inaugural girls basketball state tournament. Kohala, the league’s sole representative in the eight-team tourney, lost to Waianae 45-43 in the first round and fell to Kalaheo 47-29 in consolation play.
The next season, the BIIF had two state berths. Kohala fell to Waipahu 62-42 in the third-place game, while BIIF runner-up St. Joseph lost two straight. That season marked the debut of a Cowgirls freshman named Lynette Liu.
The last time the Cowgirls won the BIIF title and went to the state tournament was 1981. Liu, then a senior, made state history with a three-game record of 85 points. (The 3-point shot did not become part of the rules until 1985.)
Liu, who played for Hawaii from 1982-85, is still fourth in career scoring with 1,363 points — an 11.6 points per game average — ahead of former BIIF standouts and fellow Rainbow Wahine players Keisha Kanekoa (2008-11) with 1,200 points and 10.3 ppg, and Kaui Wakita (1991-94) with 1,173 points and 9.8 ppg.
Such achievements provide McPeek, who has been head of security at her old school since 1981, motivational ammunition for pep talks to her team, which returns one starter in senior point guard Sheana Cazimero.
“They know it’s possible to be a champion from a small school,” she said. “Back then, we didn’t have Division II. It was playing against everybody.
“I want them to play as a team, never quit, and if they play hard and lose, it’s OK as long as they leave it all on the court. One thing I really want to instill in them is that they’re students first and athletes second.”
It’s no surprise that she emphasizes hitting the books, considering her parents, William and the late Florence McPeek, were academic anchors at the school. William was a principal, and Florence was a physical education teacher. They later served as athletic directors.
“My dad’s advice to me was work hard and never give up,” said McPeek, noting that mantra carried over to both sports and the classroom.
There were five McPeek siblings, and each played sports. One brother, Steve, won a BIIF wrestling championship while the Cowgirls coach played softball, volleyball and basketball, the family sport.
Her uncle is the late James Alegre, her mom’s brother and the Radford boys basketball coach for 34 years. He won more than 600 games and four state championships.
“When we won the three BIIF titles, back then we played really mean defense,” McPeek said. “That’s what we’re trying to instill in the girls now. Defense turns into offense. Our kids are from a small school, and a majority of them play basketball, volleyball and softball.
“We’re young, but we have a lot of heart and play defense pretty well. We’re learning to be patient and control the ball on offense. Sheana has really good ball-handling skills, knows the game really well and has stepped up to be a leader.”
Freshman Tezrah Antonio and junior Mohala Kaholoaa-Kumukoa are part of a three-guard lineup and will share ball-handling duties. Hauoli Sproat-Lancaster, a senior, and Naai Solomon-Lewis, one of three freshmen, are the forwards.
“Mohala’s pretty consistent handling the ball, and Tezrah is not afraid to drive to the basketball,” McPeek said. “Hauoli is pretty strong under the boards. She can hold her own for someone with not much height, the same with Naai. They’re 5 feet 7 or 5 feet 8 at the most.
“Our goal is to get more wins than last year. That’s our goal.”
Last season, the Cowgirls went 4-6 and fell to Ka‘u in the first round of the BIIF playoffs.
Meanwhile, McPeek couldn’t quite place whether the Cowgirls finished third or fourth at states back in the day. Scores, standings and other things of such nature fade over time.
But not great memories. They live forever, and so do bonds with old teammates. One of McPeek’s teammates on Kohala’s glory years was Tweetie Viernes, the school’s assistant athletic director.
“It was amazing winning the BIIF championship and going to states. We had kids on the team who never traveled to Oahu before, and it was the first state tournament. It was a learning experience for them,” said McPeek, briefly reliving her best memories while hoping her Cowgirls make their own.