Most teams that lose half of their eight-man rotation and the majority of their starting lineup would be faced with the mediocrity of a rebuilding year. Not Konawaena. The Wildcats have reloaded, and the expectations for the BIIF’s premier program remain sky high.
“We really don’t have the big bodies. We are built to run,” said Konawaena head coach Donny Awa. “The way we are playing now, we are looking real good. I would have to say we look like the favorite in the BIIF.”
Konawaena graduated three starters from last year’s team: West first-team guard Kenan Gaspar, second-team guard Nick Mims and 6-foot-8 center Brenton Shropshire.
The Wildcats will depend heavily on returning starters Brandon Awa — who has received praise as one of the best ball-handlers and playmakers around — and Jonah Bredeson, who takes over the giant shoes left by Shropshire as the team’s primary rebound-getter and post player.
There’s no shortage of athletes on the new-look Konawaena roster. The Wildcats feature five first-team All-BIIF football selections in Chase Takaki, receiver and defensive back; Cameron Howes, receiver; Makoa Chapa, defensive line; Eric Edmund, defensive line; and Awa, defensive back, in the rotation — a big reason why coach Awa has decided to go with a full-court press defensive strategy.
A tough slate of preseason games have tested the Wildcats, who are hungry to return to the state tournament after getting bounced in last season’s semifinals by Maryknoll 45-32.
Waiakea pulled off a surprising 48-38 win over the defending BIIF champions in the Waiakea/Keaau preseason tournament championship earlier this month, but that was before the roster had a chance to mesh.
Since that loss, the Wildcats have faced a plethora of tests, which have pushed the team’s boundaries.
One of those tests came in the finals of the Pete Smith Classic boys basketball tournament against host school Kalaheo.
Awa and his boys found themselves down by as many as 16 in the third quarter, but came storming back to win on a last second 3-pointer by Takaki.
“We got caught in a half-court game against Kalaheo in the championship, and it really was not until the second half that we were able to get out there and run, and get the pace we wanted,” Awa said.
While the Wildcats rely heavily on athleticism and speed, Bredeson has shown he can bang with the best of them in the preseason, earning tough baskets in the paint and bullying bigger opponents.
Evidence of this came in a 78-70 win against Australia at the World Youth Basketball Tournament Holiday Invitational. The Australia team boasted several players taller than 6 feet, but despite being severely out-sized, the Wildcats never backed down. Awa and Bredeson led the charge, driving and converting at the line.
“Jonah is attacking the rim more now, almost to the point of not looking for his jump shot,” Awa said with a grin. “Having got stronger in the offseason, I don’t think he minds the contact as much.”
Bredeson’s attack mentality has been infectious for the Wildcats so far this season.
“These guys are small, but really strong,” Awa said. “They have put in the time in the weight room and actually like getting contact on the way to the rim. Sometimes I have to calm them down.”
The team lacked chemistry early in the preseason, but has since developed into a more cohesive unit.
“No matter who is scoring, they are celebrating and cheering on their teammates — no egos,” Awa said. “When they are having fun, that really gets me going, too.”
Among the new additions to the roster is Zane Gray, who played at Hawaii Preparatory Academy previously but is familiar with Awa’s system.
“Zane played for me before high school,” said Awa. “He has stepped right in and the chemistry between him and the other guys has not taken a hit.”
The BIIF will be forced to keep up with the frantic pace of the Wildcats, but Awa knows the path to the league title may be tougher than in years past.
“The BIIF is improving,” Awa said. “Waiakea, Hilo and Kohala are all getting better. I think Waiakea might have had the edge on us at the start of the preseason, but it looks like we are the favorite now.”