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December 21, 2013 - 11:13pm

For years, there’s been an interesting pot of high-caliber stew brewing at Waiakea, finally home to the league’s boys basketball team with the most depth, talent and expectations.

The Warriors haven’t won a Big Island Interscholastic Federation title since 2009. Their last trip to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I state tournament was the following season.

However, they have four returning senior starters — Lucas St. George, Dillon Rellez, Bryson Ita and Maikai Gahan — each of whom has received recognition on the competitive All-BIIF East teams last season.

St. George, a 6-foot-3 center, and Rellez, a 5-10 guard, landed on the first team while Ita, a 5-6 guard, and Gahan, a 5-11 forward, got honorable mention. No other team, from the East or West divisions, returns that many all-stars.

Better yet, Rellez, Ita and Gahan have been playing basketball together since they were in the fourth grade. A few years later, St. George became part of that group.

The biggest motivation is that Waiakea’s Core Four has never reached states. It’s their last chance, a task made harder as the Division I title favorite. That distinction puts a bull’s-eye on the team’s back with everyone bringing their best game to knock off the league’s big cheese.

The Core Four Warriors came close last season, falling to Konawaena 59-58 in the BIIF semifinals. When they were sophomores, Waiakea lost to Kealakehe 54-44 in the first round.

“This year we should go to states. We’re a more hustling team,” St. George said. “But we have to go out and play hard. Being the favorite doesn’t mean anything, until you go out and win something.

“It’s just the same guys playing together. I’ve been playing with Bryson, Maikai and Dillon since the seventh grade at Waiakea Uka. We’re basically all good friends and best friends who help each other on the court.”

Instead of chilling out during the summer, St. George and Rellez played on the Hoop Dreams club team, coached by Randy “Helicopter” Apele. His son, 2012 Kamehameha graduate Lanaki Apele, is at Division III Cal Lutheran.

Under the Helicopter, a former St. Joseph golden star, Rellez spent his time slashing to the rim and firing jumpers from the corner. Those refurbished skills should help free Ita and Gahan for open long-range looks, and provide space in the paint for St. George, an inside presence and defender.

“Lucas has been our MVP by far, during the preseason,” Waiakea coach Paul Lee said. “We can pressure more on the perimeter because he’s a safety blanket if our guards get beat. From last year to this year, his improvement has been unreal. He’s more intense and grabs more rebounds than he ever did.

“His post play draws a lot of attention. Our guards get a lot of open looks and 3-pointers. But he has to stay out of foul trouble. He can’t make silly fouls, like reach-ins. We need him on the court, and he makes our team better.”

Kahinu Alapai, a 6-0 sophomore forward, figures to get starts and a load of minutes when the Warriors decide to field a big lineup. Mark Pacris, a 5-10 junior, and Daylen Ita, a junior and the same size as his brother, logged key minutes last season.

There are some well-known last names on the roster: sophomore guard Noah Ferreira (son of former Hilo star Bruce Ferreira), senior center Jeff Tomas (grandson of Waiakea girls coaching legend Gil Tomas), and freshman guard Calvin Mattos (brother of ex-Waiakea standouts Chris and Jamie Mattos).

The 5-8 Mattos is shorter than his brother, but taller than his sister. One part of his game that’s refined is his ability to finish in transition; when a miss is rebounded and fired to Mattos on the outlet he’s a blur to the basket.

He and a few other fellow Warriors, such as crafty junior guard Cody Kojima, picked up valuable playing time because several starters have been on the disabled list during the preseason.

The job of distributing the ball to open shooters will fall to the older Ita, who doesn’t feel the pressure of being everybody’s No. 1 target.

“Our strength is shooting around the perimeter,” he said. “We’ve got good shooters. We can also post up and have high-percentage shots down low.

“We’re picked as the favorite, but we’ve got to keep our humbleness, and take every game as it comes.”