PAUL HONDA / PHONDA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Konawaena players Kara Hanato-Smith, left, and Mana Hopkins, right, know how to make Wildcats coach Bobbie Awa laugh.
Kona’s wild ’Cats
Hanato-Smith and Hopkins lead the charge for the defending state champs
ONE is a ball of frenetic energy, capable of covering 94 feet of hardwood seemingly forever.
The other would be just fine curled up under a lamp, eyeglasses on, reading her favorite books.
They make quite a dynamic duo, these two 'Cats do. It was barely eight months ago when Kara Hanato-Smith experienced a world of thrills as the Konawaena Wildcats prowled through the competition to the Division I girls basketball state title game.
Once the 'Cats arrived, she saw Mana Hopkins -- the jokester -- score a season-high 26 points as they captured the state crown.
Hopkins, a 5-foot-9 post player, returned as a senior but the cupboard was half empty for coach Bobbie Awa. Gone were All-State players Jazzmin Awa-Williams and Kara's sharpshooting sister, Liana.
Depleted by graduation, the 2007-08 version of Konawaena basketball seemed to be in rebuilding mode. They came to Moanalua's tournament and squeaked by with three narrow wins. Back home, they kept working. Conditioning. Executing Awa's defensive plans.
A home-court loss to Radford, which played without All-State center Ta Nitra Byrd, was not a good sign. It didn't matter. The offseason workouts, which included endless roadside runs under Kailua-Kona's scorching sun, and growing team unity have added up for the bookworm and the jokester. Konawaena is coming off a stunning 60-52 win over the league's hottest team, Kamehameha-Hawaii. Hopkins scored 18 points, while Hanato-Smith drilled five 3-pointers in a row during the pivotal third quarter.
The 'Cats (9-1) are now ranked third in the Star-Bulletin Girls Basketball Top 10. So much for downgrades and lowered expectations.
"We're related to Wonder Woman," Hopkins says.
That explains everything.
If high school girls basketball were an industry, the Konawaena Wildcats are a veritable factory. With two state championships in the past four years, a host of players now at the college level, and honor-roll scholar-athletes churning out, the 'Cats seem to be a giant corporation.
The reality is, with seven fulltime players, Konawaena basketball is a specialty shop with an accent on quality craftsmanship. Drive along Mamalahoa Highway, blink for a second, and the Wildcats' "factory" is already behind you.
The early years of Konawaena's BIIF dynasty starred Jessica Hanato and Nancy Hoist, and continued with Awa-Williams.
The common threads are twofold: early training and family. Many of the 'Cats came up through Awa's Stringrays basketball club, and to several of them, Awa is literally "Auntie."
That's the case for Hanato-Smith, who began as a Stingray at 5. Hopkins didn't jump in until she was 11, but the two became fast friends on the court, in the classroom -- Hanato-Smith carries a 3.6 grade-point average and Hopkins has a 3.5 -- and on the track.
"Kara likes to run," Hopkins says. "Long distances. She likes moving her feet. I think she could be in the Ironman."
Hanato-Smith admits this is true, but won't try out for cross country and has no plans to run track.
"I like to run," she says. "But not fast."
To compensate for their lack of depth, Awa has made more use of zone defenses, which runs contrary to her defensive philosophy. The game against KS-Hawaii, however, was an exception. Konawaena junked the zone and roared to victory on a hellacious man-to-man defense, which fits Hopkins well.
Konawaena hoops has often been about all-out, intense defense and a relentless fastbreak. That, however, was a given because of depth and experience.
"The two girls gotta take on more leadership now, and more scoring," Awa said. "I think the whole preseason, we worked everybody and they all get significant minutes, but they're my two main players."
Awa knew precisely how each would lead.
"Mana is such a positive person. She's helping them out, not telling them what to do. Mana's a nice person. She's vocal on the playing court in a positive way," Awa said. "Kara doesn't say much unless it's her sister. She hardly says a peep. She just plays."
Yes, there's another Hanato-Smith in the wings. Thea, a freshman, is quickly becoming a clutch player. In fact, the three freshmen on the roster have contributed in big ways.
"No one thought they would be a threat this year. Thea has been driving to the basket and making her layups," Kara says. "Misi (U'ulopa) has been rebounding and hitting her layups. Anuhea (Wall) has been shooting those jumpers and stealing a lot of balls lately."
That development has been welcome, especially since the early weeks of the season were a struggle. The loss to Radford?
"We were still in bonding mode," Hopkins explains.
Part of the bonding was something quite unique to girls. Hopkins, Hanato-Smith and two teammates made a friendly bet about who could grow their armpit hair for the longest time.
The first to crack was returnee Lucy Brown, who wound up buying the other three Jamba Juice.
"There were only four of us, but she spent 20 bucks," said Hopkins, who eventually lost.
The winner was Hanato-Smith, but before the bet was over, they went to their Winter Ball before shaving.
That's how the Wildcat girls bond. When school resumes next week, Hanato-Smith will have the pleasure of seeing her losers wear basketball clothes and high heels to class. Plus makeup.
"Coach just looks at us," Hopkins says, "and laughs."