Star-Bulletin Sports

Friday, May 17, 2002


Tony Sellitto said goodbye after 30 years at Hawaii Pacific's final home game on Feb. 26.

A year of firsts ... and lasts


By Brandon Lee

In a year in which more than one team from the local Division II schools accomplished an unprecedented first, the most significant news came from an individual who was calling it his last.

Sure, a Hawaii school won tennis national championships this season like no one before within the affiliation. And, yes, basketball fans -- local, stateside and beyond -- gazed intently at the local hoopsters tussling with the big boys of Division I during the holiday tournaments.

But for all the noise generated by these and other events, the biggest story came from a man who never had trouble making his voice heard above the din -- and that's because he announced permanent plans to keep quiet.

"It's just time for somebody else, time for somebody else to experience this," said legendary Hawaii Pacific basketball coach Tony Sellitto, shortly after the 2001-02 season ended two months ago.

Before the season, the man who defines passion on the sidelines -- the shorts-wearing one who is the most successful men's coach in Hawaii hoops history (295-136 record) and the only person at any level to bring a national basketball championship (1993 NAIA) home to the Islands -- had announced it would be his farewell campaign.

"People may think I'll have trouble stepping away from this and just watching games quietly in the stands," he said. "But I won't. I'm looking forward to it."

Later, word came from HPU that Sellitto was not only stepping away from the Sea Warriors' basketball program, but from the athletic department as well, where he served a dual role as athletic director during his 14-year tenure at the school.

Russell Dung, Sellitto's top assistant coach and the assistant athletic director during his entire stay at HPU, was named as his successor for both jobs. Tita Ahuna, who has coached the Sea Warriors' women's volleyball team to two of the last four Division II national championships and will continue to lead the program, was then named the school's first senior women's administrator, the No. 2 position in the department under Dung.

"What I always thought I brought to the table," said Sellitto, two days ago on his 65th birthday, "was that the guys that I played against and guys that played for me would notice and say, 'Hey, he's pretty serious, we better be prepared.' They realized that I wasn't in it just for the fun of it.

"I think I'm comfortable with that. People may say a lot of things, but I think they all recognized me for that. Our success spurred people in the state to take a real look at Division II basketball."

A LOT OF REAL LOOKS were given to all four local D-II basketball programs as they again each hosted a holiday tournament for D-I teams this past season. Unlike before, however, the tournaments hosted by Brigham Young-Hawaii, Hawaii-Hilo and HPU were not mere afterthoughts compared to Chaminade's prestigious Maui Invitational.

Of course, a lot of people did watch "The Maui" closely, as it had its typical big-name lineup with the likes of defending national champion Duke, Kansas and UCLA. The host Silverswords almost picked up a win against Houston on the tournament's final day, yet ultimately failed in their bid to nab their first Invitational win in 10 years.

But where Chaminade came up short, the other Hawaii D-II schools did not. HPU picked up its first win (against Liberty) in Thanksgiving Classic history, and the first over a D-I team in Sellitto's career. Hilo picked up its second win over a D-I team (South Carolina State) in Big Island Invitational history, and nearly won two out of three during the tournament.

BYUH not only won two out of three games in the Yahoo! Sports Invitational to bring its all-time tournament win total to three, the Seasiders' victories came during the first two days of their tournament. In other words, BYUH played through the winners bracket and became the first D-II team ever to make the final of a D-I tournament.

"Not just the University of Hawaii had a great season this year, all four D-II teams did really good, too," BYUH coach Ken Wagner said. "To play D-I teams and beat them, it gave us the confidence to know we can play with anyone. It gave us a lot of pride, and the thought that maybe we can do it every year."

The Seasiders came up short in the championship against Tulsa, but their respect had already been earned. It was later validated when BYUH was the only local school to make the NCAA Division II Tournament.

And the loss didn't really affect the busloads of Japanese tourists that sat in the stands for every Invitational game that BYUH played, either. They all wanted a glimpse of the Seasiders' Yuta Tabuse -- the "Jordan of Japan," some say -- demonstrating his high skill level in America.

Immensely popular in his native country, they screamed at piercing decibels every time he touched the ball -- even against Tulsa, when the game was well out of reach. Undoubtedly, countless more were doing the same thing watching the live feed over the Internet. And it's a good thing they came when they did, because Tabuse left to play professionally in Japan after the season -- his only one competing in the U.S.

THE SEASIDERS' SUCCESS continued right from the hardwood to the hard court, as both the BYUH men and women finished fantastic tennis seasons by winning national championships -- making the Laie school the first in D-II history to accomplish both feats in the same season.

"I guess it is unusual to have two teams capable of winning," said Dave Porter, who coached both teams. Porter is the only coach besides Butch Newman of Division III Trinity to lead men's and women's teams to national championships in the same year.

"It probably hasn't really set in that we did it both in the same year, and how hard it is to do," he added.

For the men, it was their first national title. The women's championship made it three D-II national titles for them in the last four years, and five (1997-98 NAIA) in the last six overall. The men (29-1) suffered their only loss of the season to island rival HPU, while the women (29-0) were undefeated.

HIGH ON THE LIST of the remaining newsworthy items of the year, Hilo volleyball coach Sharon Peterson picked up the 500th victory of her career. Also, former University of Hawaii basketball star Alika Smith joined Hilo as an assistant coach and helped a squad with three starters from Hawaii high schools to 18 wins.

On the negative side, namely postseason snubs, the Vulcans' softball team suffered perhaps the most egregious one after being denied a spot in the West Regional. Hilo posted a 38-19 record for its second-best season ever, yet were left as the seventh-ranked team on the outside looking in at the six-team regional.

"We felt we deserved to be there," Hilo coach Callen Perreira said. "But I at least wanted the girls to learn that in the real world, things don't always work the way you planned. Maybe it will make them even hungrier for next year."

Yes, there is always next year. But the one that passed was one that won't soon be forgotten.


This year's Division II highlights

>> Longtime Hawaii Pacific basketball skipper Tony Sellitto coached his final game. Assistant Russell Dung takes over for Sellitto.

>> For the first time, Brigham Young-Hawaii, Hawaii Pacific and Hawaii-Hilo all won games in their Division I basketball tournaments in the same year.

>> The BYUH men's and women's tennis teams became the first to sweep both national Division II titles.

>> Hilo volleyball coach Sharon Peterson celebrated win No. 500.

>> The Hilo basketball team celebrates the 25th anniversary of its 23-3 team with one of its best teams in recent history, led by senior Scott Prather.

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