Kealen Figueroa and many of his teammates didn’t have to leave Kohala to find a hero.
Figueroa was at his grandmother’s house in 2007 when he turned on the TV and saw a couple of familiar faces, Ryan and Brandon Bautista, playing in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association championship game in Honolulu.
“Oh my God,” Figueroa remembers thinking. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The Cowboys lost to McKinley in the final, denying the school its first state title. But with Brandon Bautista running the show, Kohala would go on to win three consecutive Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II boys basketball titles. Bautista currently plays at NAIA powerhouse Oregon Tech where he is a junior guard.
“I always looked up to him because his sister used to babysit me,” Figueroa said. “I was always over at the house. We would always play one-on-one in the backyard.”
The 2009 squad, which finished third in the state, is the last from Kohala to win a BIIF title, but veteran coach Don Fernandez sees many similarities in his team this year. Neither were all that tall or deep, but both can shoot. Plus Figueroa, a junior point guard, is cut from the same cloth as his idol, according to the man who coached them both.
“He works hard on defense,” Fernandez said. “Trying to be a role model like Brandon.”
“This team’s goals are the same as Brandon’s teams: Trying to win BIIFs and represent the BIIF at the state tournament. Brandon was a legend to this group.”
The core is solid thanks to juniors Figueroa, Ryan Caravalho, Justin Agbayani and Mikala Jordan.
“We want to live up to the goals that (Brandon) set,” Jordan said.
The talent stream to the high school from the feeder programs has been an on-again, off-again proposition lately. There are only two seniors and one sophomore on the roster, but the four junior starters have all picked up varsity seasoning since their freshman year, and Figueroa, Caravalho, Agbayani and junior Shawn Ray Ramos have been playing together since they were 5 or 6.
“We know how everybody plays and how to play with each other and everybody’s speed,” Jordan said.
With Fernandez at the helm, Kohala has only known one speed: fast. He figures it’s fun for the fans and the players, which is all the better this year since the Cowboys lack a big post presence.
“That’s perfect for us,” said Figueroa, who made second-team all-BIIF West Hawaii last year. “We like to run.”
The Cowboys want to play uptempo and get into transition with a three- or four-guard offense, while applying full-court pressure defense all game long to see which team lasts at the end.
“Hopefully it’s us,” Fernandez said.
But that unrelenting style means Kohala has to develop more depth behind its four junior starters, some of whom have interchangeable roles. Agbayani will spell Figueroa and run the offense at times when he’s not playing off-guard. Jordan and Caravalho are both in the range of 5-foot-10 and have the same job description: rebound, shoot, run the court and hold down the fort defensively on the inside against other team’s bigs.
If there is a drop-off after them it’s because of a lack of varsity experience.
Chance Pang, another guard, got playing time last season as a freshman. He was slowed by an injury in the preseason but is expected to contribute. Ramos, freshman Kamaalea Emeliano-Solomon and senior Bronson Fuertes are in the mix at the fifth starting spot.
Ramos was the first player to come off the bench last season, but the true sixth man for Kohala boys basketball comes when its playing at home.
The Cowboys wore out the road from Kapaau to Hilo during back-and-forth trips during three preseason tournaments — finishing 4-6 — but they’re much more comfortable when playing in front of the lively crowds that pack the tight confines of their gym.
“Kohala has big fans for basketball,” Fernandez said. “They fill up the gym. Really tough for visitors to come and play there, because the fans are all over them with crowd noise and everything. The crowd is so into the game they even intimidate our own team.”
It’s largely been that way since Fernandez helped the Cowboys win the league title as a player in 1979.
But Figueroa doesn’t have to look back that far when remembering the glory days. He saw them on TV and in person.
Last year, the Cowboys went 7-5 and lost to Pahoa in the BIIF semifinals to miss out on a second straight trip to states.
“Last year it hurt,” Figueroa said. “We want to get that travelling ticket and do our thing up (on Oahu).”