THE HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Iolani's Kekai Kealoha and Wally Marciel got their ankles taped by trainer Louise Inafuku in preparation for the start of a practice session.
Raiders silence critics
After losing its big stars to graduation, Iolani still manages to capture more championships
THERE were those who believed in the power of Iolani basketball -- only as long as Bobby Nash and Derrick Low were in uniform. Nash graduated three years ago, and Iolani carried on with Low in charge.
Low completed his eligibility two years ago, and the Raiders marched to their fourth state title in a row in 2005 with Kyle Pape hitting big shot after big shot.
Pape has since joined Nash (Hawaii) and Low (Washington State) in the college ranks as a guard at Colorado School of Mines. His departure gave a new group of Raiders an opportunity to write the next chapter of the dynasty.
Still, through all of Iolani's basketball glory, people behind the scenes, such as trainer Louise Inafuku, never fail to praise the Raiders.
"They're actually pretty humble," said Inafuku, a full-timer on a staff of 2.5 trainers. "They say, 'Thank you,' they always do. They listen pretty well. What I like about all the kids is they're more about the team, not about being an All-Star or taking recognition for themselves."
"One Team" is the mantra that has been with Iolani since the days of Father Bray. The motto is practically DNA code, painted on the walls within Iolani's gym.
One may be a number that Raider fans are familiar with, as in No. 1 in the state, but players see it strictly as part of the code.
It's 3:40 p.m. on Monday, 20 minutes before Iolani's last "regular" practice of the season and two days before the Raiders enter state quarterfinal play. The air-conditioned confines of the Iolani trainer's room has five Raider basketball players. With the TV tuned in to the West Virginia-Syracuse game, basketball never escapes the conversation.
Barry Kang, the starting point guard, doesn't know who the favorite is for the 50th annual Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Boys Basketball State Championships that started yesterday, never mind that Iolani is the No. 1 seed.
"I don't know. I haven't seen anyone play," Kang said.
Between studies and practice, Kang can't be blamed for the lack of scouting. Besides, his team has some of the best talent around.
Senior Kawika Shoji is probably the best interior defender in the tournament, yet has a 3-point touch that has scorched foes in the second half of the season.
Shoji hems and haws about Iolani's seeding.
"Uhh, all four seeds are the favorites," he said.
After four state championships in a row, the Raiders remain confident, but smart. Even humble.
PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Iolani coach Mark Mugiishi talked about strategy as freshman backup guard Kela Marciel listened.
Perhaps more than humility, the Raiders are actually indifferent to what anyone else thinks. Even with a stranger in the training room, the entire team mills about, waxing eloquent about everything from Texas' one-sided loss to the usual teen topics.
Kekai Kealoha isn't going to diminish his skills. He considers himself the best one-on-one defender in the state tourney.
"I have speed, and I can mess with a person's head, get him frustrated," the 5-foot-8 senior said.
VINNY NIP brings both defense and one of the quickest 3-point releases in the islands. His scoring output has been sporadic this season as defenses keyed in on him. The 5-9 senior, doesn't overthink the prospect of another state title.
However, Wally Marciel wonders: "If we win it this week, will Vinny be the first guy to win four?"
That would require thorough research, and the facts aren't readily available from the trainer's room.
"Whatever you do," Iolani coach Mark Mugiishi warns, "don't quote Taylor Mounts."
Mounts, a gangly sophomore forward, insists that Duke's "Cameron Crazies" are the best fans in college basketball. He is 6 feet, 3 inches of tangled electric wires and energy, and he hates Syracuse. It is impossible to escape the world according to Taylor, but somehow, the seniors change the subject.
FORWARD JON TAKAMURA explains how he missed the ILH tiebreaker (championship) game against Kamehameha.
"It was the barbecued chicken," he says of his bout with food poisoning during a football recruiting visit to Wheaton College, which is located, of course, in a state with the abbreviation "Ill."
Takamura isn't the only Raider recovering from the effects of bad food. Marciel suffered problems after eating beef stew at the boys soccer state semifinals on Friday.
"Mine was straight pukeage the next morning," Marciel said.
Shoji was ill at the same time.
"It wasn't the food for me. I just had the flu," said Shoji, who is 6-4, but doesn't have much weight to lose.
Both players were fine by Monday afternoon. Teenage laughter brought on by upchuck humor seems fitting in the trainer's room, the locker room, and just about anywhere that has a healthy dose of testosterone.
But when the talk turns to Iolani basketball, the squad is cerebral, measuring questions as if they were calculus problems. But the tempo of the Raiders off the court is loose, light. Simple.
That translates into remarkable on-court success for a freshman like Liloa Nobriga, who is possibly the best ninth-grader in the state.
MUGIISHI AMBLES to the gym from his nearby condo a half-hour before practice, wearing a polo shirt, shorts and slippers. His approach to the game is as analytical as it gets. His ability to communicate complex demands, and the high basketball IQ of his players, makes Iolani's execution seem fluid, almost flawless at times.
Even in a season with eight defeats -- two in league play -- the Raiders are better, and what didn't kill them only made them stronger. After the team won two of four games at a tournament in Oregon two months ago, he promised that Iolani had improved significantly. Mugiishi was right.
The Raiders have reached the summit often enough. In these next three days, the next king of the hill will be crowned.
Long after Nash and Low, the doubters have been silenced.
The Raiders never really noticed.