Tolby Saito had a taste of what life would be like without his Pahoa teammate Nick Fisher, a consistent scoring machine, who missed the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II championship last season.
Fisher was recovering from severe dehydration, after scoring 22 points to power the Daggers past Kohala 67-65 in the semifinals the previous night. That victory put Pahoa into the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament for the fourth time in five years.
Saito worked hard for a game-high 22 points in the championship against Hawaii Preparatory Academy, which had better balanced scoring and wore down the Daggers in the second half for a 64-39 win to claim its second straight league title.
Last season, Saito’s role was to distribute the ball, especially feeding Fisher at the elbows where he could do the most damage with his athleticism. If the ball got kicked out, Saito was a deadly 3-point shooter.
Now, Saito is a 5-foot-9 junior point guard while Fisher is a freshman at Chaminade. Also gone to graduation are three other starters, putting more of a scoring load on Saito’s shoulders.
He’s no longer just a long-range gunner. Saito has put his dribbling skills on display — attacking the basket in either direction. With the emphasis on hand checks, he’s become a master at driving, drawing a foul and completing a three-point play.
“My role is to do whatever the coaches say,” he said. “I try to help my teammates as much as I can, get them the ball in a better position. In practice, it’s about getting everything right, like how we hustle and don’t give up and push ourselves.”
During the summer, Saito also pushed himself, attending the Hawaii Island Hoops camp in Kailua-Kona and playing for the Kona Stingrays, coached by Konawaena coach Donny Awa. But he credited his ball-handling skills to time spent at the Dennis Agena camp.
“That’s helped me a lot when running our offense to pass to people who are open,” he said. “During practice, at water breaks or at home with cones, I’d do the drills he made. When people guard me, I can get around them, and if I can split the defense it opens up for our shooters to nail shots. We’ve got big guys who use their bodies pretty well, too.”
It’s a good thing Saito listens to his coaches. His dad, Marc Saito, is the head coach. The father has been coaching his son since he was 4 years old.
“It’s fun. I know what he wants from me,” Saito said. “That’s to get better. He’s harder on me and I listen to whatever he tells me because it’ll help me.”
The league has two berths to the Division II state tournament. The league’s regular-season champion earns the first state spot. The four-team playoffs determine the other berth.
Pahoa will have tough road trips against fellow Division II teams: HPA (Jan. 7), Kohala (Jan. 10) and Ka‘u (Jan. 27).
At least the Daggers have a few players with big-game experience at states in sophomores Joel Rosario Jr., a 5-9 guard, and 5-10 guard Keinan Agonias, and two juniors in 5-11 center Torrell Thomas and 5-4 guard Ryan Narciso.
“We’re young and inexperienced. At least for us, we don’t have any bad habits,” Marc Saito said. “The team is really close and they’re comfortable with each other. We’ve got a lot of spot-up shooters, Rosario, Narciso, Agonias and Kili Oliveira.
“What I’m most proud of is our starters’ grade point average of 3.5. We’ve got some intelligent kids.”
Since statewide classification started in 2007, only four schools — HPA, Kohala, Pahoa and St. Joe — have advanced to states.
“The key is the kids have to believe in themselves and the coaches,” Pahoa coach Saito said. “We have to get buckets and draw fouls. We can’t waste possessions.
“We have to go to Kohala this year. We like going there because it’s like Duke playing at home. To be one of the top four teams it’ll come down to who can handle the travel and stay out of foul trouble.”