The Hilo High girls basketball team — blessed with quality starters and depth — has a strong desire to be the best in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation, and gets the ultimate test in a monster showdown.
The Vikings (3-0) host Konawaena (4-0) at 6 p.m. today at Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium in a rematch of last season’s BIIF championship, a 54-30 beatdown that continued the Wildcats’ unbelievable roll.
Konawaena recorded its fifth straight undefeated Division I season, and claimed its 10th BIIF title in the past 12 years. During that run of dominance, the Wildcats are 54-0 in league play — fine-tuned perfection without depth like the Vikings.
It’s the second consecutive season Konawaena is not fielding a junior varsity team. But no big worries because Chanelle Molina is still the team’s ace scorer. She posted 22 points, five assists and seven steals against Hilo in last February’s title game — as a freshman.
Molina, who has a scholarship from the University of Hawaii on the table, is the only returning Wildcat to land on last season’s All-BIIF Division I West first team. Ihi Victor made the second team. That’s it, as far as returning standouts with recognition.
Over in the power-packed East division, Hilo had two players on the first team: sisters Aliyah Pana and Alexis Pana, a 5-foot-9 point guard. Sharlei Graham-Bernisto and Amber Vaughn received honorable mention.
Aliyah Pana is the only senior starter. The other starters — sophomores Alexis Pana, Graham-Bernisto and Shalyn Guthier and junior Chailey Cabalis — are young, but bonded with team chemistry from playing on Hilo coach Ben Pana’s club team.
Last season, the Vikings qualified for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association state tournament for the first time since 1996, their last BIIF crown and long before statewide classification started in 2004.
The matchup with Konawaena has huge implications on the line. The winner jumps into the driver’s seat for the BIIF regular-season title, which includes the golden carrot of the league’s first berth to states.
“We’re more motivated. It’s almost a complete calendar year (since the BIIF championship),” coach Pana said. “The girls are wiser, a little older and all the girls injured in December are healthy and will be back on the floor.”
Alexis Pana suffered a concussion during Konawaena’s tournament Dec. 7. She’ll be back for her first game, the season’s biggest so far, after four weeks of eager anticipation.
“She’s looking forward to the game. She had the itchy bug sitting on the bench,” her father said. “The girls are motivated to have her back on the court. In the Iolani tournament, Shalyn hyper-extended her elbow. In the same tournament, Aliyah hyper-extended her elbow, too.
“We’re doing OK. We’d like the girls to think it’s another game, but whoever the victor is will be in the driver’s seat. It’s also a confidence booster for both clubs. Both are young and athletic. It’s good motivation for either side.”
Molina is much more than a 5-6 point guard who scores. Her volleyball skills have helped her first-step quickness, breaking down a defender on the dribble to pass to open shooters or attack the rim. But it’s her court savvy that most concerns Pana.
“Chanelle is an awesome player and a great kid to watch,” he said. “Her basketball IQ makes her dangerous. Like a lot of athletic kids, that stands out. She motivates her team to follow her footsteps. She’s a natural-born leader. It’s a killer for us, when she sets up others for easy baskets.
“No matter what, my preference is to play man. We’ll throw fresh bodies on her to wear her down. The benefit of man is we have so much speed we can cover a lot of ground, jump into passing lanes, close out dribble-penetration. When we play man, we can space out and it’s easier for us to score in transition.”
Molina, who led Konawaena to the Division II state volleyball title, has quick hands, another volleyball refinement from digging bullets in either direction. Last season, the Wildcats chewed on Hilo’s ball-handlers, forced 12 turnovers and went on a 12-0 scoring spree that padded an early 16-3 lead.
Fire vs. fire
No curveballs for Pana. He’s going to match fire with fire, again. Both teams depend on defense, especially throwing timely traps, to fuel their offense.
“For our team, we’re hoping to play up-tempo. That’s our style,” he said. “We want to get in transition, play chaos on defense. High up-tempo, that’s a good pace for us.
“We’ve been working with more action in our post. We want to take advantage with our height. Our outside shooting started off slow in the preseason, but every day the kids practice and are getting better. Our outside shooting isn’t close to its peak yet.”
With the tighter defensive restrictions, especially hand-checks, being enforced on all levels, Pana believes avoiding foul trouble will be a huge key in what he hopes will be a home game filled with Viking supporters.
“The X-factor will be not only how the kids play with intensity, but the emphasis on the new rules, the hand-checks,” he said. “The whole league, everybody, is adjusting to that. It’s also who takes care of the ball best. If we limit turnovers, we’ll be in good shape.
“Before the school break, word was going around town. We’re trying to get people to this game, especially our alumni. We’re going to have the Hilo Special Olympics at the game and introduce them. It should be exciting and I think we’ll get a good-sized crowd.”