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Friday, January 2, 2004



[ HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL ]


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DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Iolani senior Derrick Low is "the best player to ever come out of this state," according to Punahou coach Greg Tacon.


Path to state title won’t
be easy for Iolani

The preseason favorite in boys
basketball will be up against improved
competition in the ILH


For Punahou coach Greg Tacon, the by-product of having a young team is being told by casual observers that your team is a year away. But as promising as the future of Punahou basketball may look, Tacon is enjoying the present just fine.

"We want to be good this year -- we're not worried about next year," said Tacon, who will have two sophomores and two freshmen in his regular nine-man rotation Tuesday when the Buffanblu host Maryknoll in their season opener. "With Iolani, Kamehameha and St. Louis (in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu), you have to play your best basketball every time out."

Punahou went 12-4 during a preseason that included games against six of last year's state tournament teams.

"They play good basketball," Iolani coach Mark Mugiishi said, "and I really respect Greg (Tacon). He's going to do a great job with them."

Of course, it is Mugiishi and the Raiders who have set the standard for basketball excellence of late. The two-time defending state champions return an all-star cast, led by Washington State-bound point guard Derrick Low.

"If you want to talk about who is going to win the state tournament, then it's Iolani," Leilehua coach Keith Spencer said. "They have 10 guys who can play, and they're so hard to defend because all of them can shoot the ball as well as put the ball on the floor and go to the basket. I think it's the smallest team Doc's had, but it might be his best team."

Adds Tacon: "Derrick (Low) is the best player to ever come out of this state, and it has nothing to do with offense -- it's his presence and how he approaches the game. Their intensity level wears you down."

With Low back in the fold and a supporting cast that goes 10 deep, Iolani is easily the clear-cut choice of prep coaches and media to repeat in 2004, but if last season proved anything, it was that parity is alive and well on Oahu. In the ILH, the Raiders will likely find sturdy competition from Kamehameha, defending state runner-up Saint Louis and Punahou, which could be the dark horse in the ILH.

The Buffanblu are led by a pair of seniors in forward Reid Fowler and point guard Scott Otake, while freshman guard Jeremiah Ostrowski has already established himself as one of the state's top newcomers, averaging a team-best 15 points per game. Punahou also boasts junior post player Kasey Ko, sophomore Brenton Lee, sophomore Danny Cho, 6-foot-5 freshman Spencer McLachlin, senior Morgan Ellsworth and 6-5 junior T.J. Zabriske.

"I've never had four youngsters play such a vital role," Tacon said. "We're a very young team, but our seniors are learning about leadership, and when we're shooting the ball well, we're a dangerous team."

Iolani, which opens its season at Saint Louis on Tuesday night in a rematch of last year's state championship game, lost key players Bobby Nash, Chad Miller and Gage Eberlin from last year's team, but the Raiders have maintained their high level of play with an interchangeable lineup.

"We have a little different team this year," said Mugiishi, whose team's only two losses in the preseason came to Mainland powers Montrose (Md.) and Fairley (Tenn.). "We're more explosive, and we're also more vulnerable. We're quite small, but we're skilled and quick, and every member of this team is willing to work hard. They're quite humble. They don't put any undue value on themselves. It's why I'm proud of this team."

In addition to Low, the Raiders return seniors Todd Blankenship, Sean Carney, Ryan Hirata and Zack Tollefson and juniors Kyle Pape, Jon Yasuda and James Street, the tallest member of the team at 6-4. The Raiders' depth is such that their starting lineup fluctuates from game to game.

"I'm never that worried about our offensive production," Mugiishi said. "We have more than our share of sharpshooters."

Low averaged 14 points, 5.5 assists and 3.5 steals last year.

"Derrick is the glue that holds them together," said Kalaheo coach Chico Furtado, whose team lost a pair of hard-fought games to Iolani in the preseason. "He has the ability to take over a game if he wants to. In our games, when we've had a lead, he's made great offensive plays."

Furtado has a dominating performer of his own in 6-7 senior center Sam Wilhoite, who averaged 25 points a game during a preseason that saw the defending OIA champion Mustangs go 10-5. Seniors Neil Bowers and Matt Nakashima and juniors David Moore and Theo Fujita round out the Mustangs' starting lineup.

"Sam is not going to be stopped one-on-one in the low post -- that's evident," Furtado said. "But the bottom line is that the success of our team will be on the shoulders of those other guys. All of them have something to offer. Right now, it's a matter of getting those other guys to play to their strengths."

Kalaheo, which visits Farrington tomorrow night, won the last three OIA titles and 11 of the last 13 under Pete Smith, who retired from coaching last spring. But Furtado expects his team to be challenged long before the postseason.

"This is as tough as I've seen the East, in terms of how many different teams are going to be difficult to play against," he said.

So balanced was the East last season that Kalaheo finished fourth behind tri-champions Castle, Kaimuki and Roosevelt before making its now customary championship run in the OIA playoffs.

In the OIA West, Leilehua will likely be among the favorites, along with Mililani and defending division champ Radford.

"Even though they lost some kids (to graduation), Radford looks impressive, and Mililani looks real good," said Spencer, whose team visits Pearl City tonight for its opener.

The Mules advanced to the OIA championship game last year -- where they lost 61-43 to Kalaheo -- and went 10-1 this preseason, the only loss coming to Kamehameha.

Three talented seniors lead the Mules -- 6-3 small forward Angelo Massey, point guard Angel Fontanez and power forward Antonio Carter. Massey, who can play three positions, is the team's most versatile player. Spencer is also high on sophomore back-up point guard Kennedy Orteza.

"Angelo (Massey) has really matured off of the court, and it's carried over to his game," Spencer said. "Our strength is our team speed, and this is the first time in nine years I actually have depth. I have 10 guys I can play with confidence. We want to get back to the OIA championship game -- that's our goal. They know how hard they have to work, and you need some luck along the way, but they know if they work hard that good things can happen."


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