HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Close-knit Aiea went from 1-9 in the Oahu Interscholastic Association last year to 10-1 this year. Na Alii start the White Division playoffs Saturday against Thompson. CLICK FOR LARGE
Na Alii on the rise
THE Aiea boys basketball team has seen "Coach Carter." They've also seen "Glory Road", "Rocky Balboa" and pretty much every other recent inspirational sports movie about teamwork ... as a team.
Seemingly overnight, Na Alii have gone from Oahu Interscholastic Association bottom-feeder to the White West Division's top seed in this weekend's OIA tournament.
Aiea -- which went 1-9 in each of the last two years in league play -- is a startling 10-1 this season behind a new coach, a talented blend of returnees and newcomers, and a whole lot of warm and fuzzy feelings.
Resurrecting a basketball program isn't supposed to be this easy, but first-year coach Wyatt Tau has the whole squad buying in to his family-first, team-second approach.
Tau held several players off his roster this season because of unresolved family problems, even though the consequence left his reserve corps depleted in at least one game this year.
"I rather them take care of that than coming to practice upset, disappointed," Tau said. "They are not going focus. For me, we preach family so much every day that it's 'do your family stuff first.' "
The team has practically become family for its players, the majority of whom know each other from the Aiea football team and growing up at the same elementary and intermediate schools.
They genuinely have a special connection with each other and their 34-year-old coach, who moonlights as offensive line assistant during football season.
"We get this bond where it's hard to break, man," Tau explained. "These guys are close. Everything that makes us successful this year was because of the chemistry that they have on and off the court."
Probably the biggest example of that is the level of commitment of reserve guard Jarred McKee, who participates in national tae kwon do tournaments at least seven times a year and had a big one lined up this week.
But McKee -- the lone player of 11 who is not on the football team -- elected to skip the U.S. Open in Orlando, Fla. -- an international tournament -- to be there for his team in the OIA championships.
"They're all close to me, my brothers, and I don't want to let them down," he said.
It was his last chance to compete in the 14-17 age bracket.
"I figure I'll travel some more, and I'm just missing one tournament," McKee continued. "Yes (it was a hard decision), my tae kwon do coach was trying to negotiate with me and stuff like that, but I just stayed back."
It seems to be a mutual sentiment. Team captain and point guard James Buchanan had to mull over what his team meant to him.
"I don't know how to explain it. It's like a family ... other than home," he said.
Good feeling gets you only so far; the roots of Na Alii's success can be traced to the underclassmen of last year. While the varsity team struggled mightily, Aiea's junior varsity team, under Tau, earned the OIA JV championship.
"At the beginning of the year Coach Wyatt told us that we'd be JV champions," recalled junior Obie Woods, Na Alii's leading scorer this season at 14.7 points per game. "At first I was a little skeptical with the prediction."
It didn't take too long for the JV players to come around that year, and the same held true with his juniors and seniors this season. Tau places a lot of trust in his players, and admittedly doesn't care too much for X's and O's.
When coach Amosa Amosa took an extended leave of absence at the beginning of this season, Tau filled in to replace him. He instilled the same run-and-gun style, but had a larger pool of talent and players familiar with him from two years of JV coaching.
Senior returnee Eric James said the biggest reason the team has bought in --besides their freewheeling offense -- is because Tau encouraged them to hang out from the start with activities like watching movies and walking to nearby Pearlridge as one.
"I think the team bonds, everybody likes each other, they know each other," James said. "(The activities) helps with the chemistry. That way, nobody gets mad at each other on the court. They know how to talk to 'em."
Every Saturday before a game, the team eats a meal together then goofs off by putting on a DVD or playing PlayStation.
But Na Alii -- who went 8-3 in nonconference play with wins over Division I teams Kailua, Kahuku, Leilehua and Kapolei -- have worked hard where it counts. Tau runs his team relentlessly in practice, and has earned the respect and admiration of at least one OIA Red Division coach with his up-and-down, fast-paced game.
"It's extremely hard (to play their style)," said Moanalua's Greg Tacon, who has voted for Aiea in the Star-Bulletin's Top 10 poll of coaches and media throughout the season (he saw Na Alii in the Na Menehune Classic). "By doing so it's not just like you're firing up wild shots. They all kind of know where each other's at, when to push the ball and they seem to get good shots every time. They're a fun team to watch."
Part of that is out of necessity, since no player on the team is taller than 5-foot-11. But by keeping their opponents off-balance with fullcourt pressure and an up-tempo attack, they've become the Phoenix Suns of the OIA White.
In addition to Woods, Buchanan, shooting guard Josh Chung, power forward Lofa Liilii and center Ryan Mora are all capable scorers.
Aiea averages an impressive 70.8 points per game in league play, which includes a 93-point outburst against Kalani and an 84-point outing vs. Nanakuli. A season-high seven players scored in double figures in a 78-60 win at Waipahu last Saturday.
Na Alii is at their deadliest when they get everybody involved, so Tau likes to give his team incentives for things like getting as many players into double-digit scoring as possible.
"Coach makes deals with us, like if we score 80 points in this game he'll take us to go eat, if we score 85 he'll take us to the movies," said Liilii, a team captain. "That too makes it better because we spend time with each other, just talk it out, discuss the game, see what we did wrong."
The only time something's gone wrong this season was a 69-64 loss against Kaiser. The Cougars, who cracked the Top 10 earlier this season, are 11-1 in the White East. In that game, Woods was saddled with foul trouble and went scoreless, and the rest of Na Alii couldn't pick up enough slack.
Aiea regrouped and has rattled off eight straight wins since.
"We tend to be overconfident, I would say," Liilii said. "There would be times guys would slack off (at practice) because of our record and whatnot, but Coach would bring us back down, and let us know there is the one team out there that beat us and if we want to win next time we play them then we'll have to practice hard."
To get another crack at the Cougars, Na Alii would have to beat Thompson in the opening round, followed by the winner of Farrington-Waialua, and have Kaiser make it to the tournament final.
For now, though, Coach Wyatt and his players aren't taking things too seriously.
"A lot of these guys are just braddahs after practice and we can just laugh and joke around," Tau said. "I wish I had that when I was in high school (at Campbell), that kind of relationship with my coach."
Unfortunately for Aiea's opponents, the team hasn't run out of new inspirational sports movies yet.
Tau already has that one lined up for Saturday.
" 'Gridiron Gang'," he said.