Schools still sorting out state basketball tournament affair
It was, by all accounts, a rapid-fire series of events that left all stunned, even nauseous.
Moanalua's odyssey came to a premature end, and the state boys basketball tournament had a dark cloud over it, even through championship night.
Considering also the shortage of officials and limited gym time due to the newly combined girls and boys schedule, it was a fitting end to one of the oddest roundball seasons ever.
Moanalua had entered the Hawaiian Airlines/HHSAA Division I Boys Basketball State Championships unseeded after finishing second in the Oahu Interscholastic Association.
After wins over Campbell and top-seeded Iolani, Na Menehune seemed to be a team of destiny. But shortly before tipping off against Kamehameha-Hawaii in a semifinal, the first domino fell.
Twenty minutes before game time, as the two teams warmed up, Moanalua athletic director Joel Kawachi got some severely bad news regarding the eligibility of one of his players. He called league and state officials immediately.
Kawachi got verification from staff at the school that the player was ineligible. Moanalua coach Greg Tacon got the call through an athletic trainer, and the player was benched.
The verification information was given to HHSAA executive director Keith Amemiya 6 minutes before game time. With TV cameras poised to air both semifinal games live across the state, Moanalua took the court without its second-leading scorer and best shot-blocker and lost to KS-Hawaii 51-45.
The loss was heartbreaking in itself for Moanalua's seniors. But that was just the beginning. Tacon wondered why he had not been told -- DOE policy requires all grade checks to be handled by administration -- about the ineligible player's situation earlier.
Tacon's frustration mounted. The team was told by the HHSAA that it would not play in the third-place game, as semifinal losers normally do, and that its earlier wins would be forfeited. The school informed Tacon that the players would not be included in the on-court ceremony that features every team during halftime of the championship game.
So, Moanalua went from title contender and Goliath killer to tournament outcast, all in a matter of hours.
Kawachi wants forward progress. "As soon as we found out, we gathered all the information and called everyone, the HHSAA, the OIA," he said.
The matter of a manual system of grade checks, Kawachi added, is not a matter of preference.
"In the public-school system, we have DOE-guided policy. If I was my own charter school, my grade policy is my own. But we all follow one policy," he said.
An 'F' is permissible as long it is not in a core class and the athlete has at least a 2.0 grade-point average. Tacon didn't hear of any discrepancies between Jan. 23 and Feb. 23. Kawachi said it was a mistake.
"Greg wasn't notified because we didn't know. We have 499 student-athletes," Kawachi noted. "What happened is, we have specific dates where we check grades. Every school's grade checks come out at the different times. Jan. 28 is the Board of Education reporting period. We knew by Jan. 23 that certain kids failed. In my department, we missed this kid. It was human error. He had above a 2.0 (grade-point average) but he failed a (core) course.
"Me and my principal accept the responsibility that a mistake was made," Kawachi said. "We apologize to everybody affected, parents, fans, students, including the teams affected."
The Moanalua athletics family, both Kawachi and Tacon say, is not about to point fingers.
"Now we gotta help support the students, make changes and adjust," Kawachi said. "We'll move forward and try to make sure this doesn't happen again. We want to support the athletes affected. We want to heal and move on."
There was more than one domino to fall when the news hit. Initially, Iolani coach Mark Mugiishi wanted the HHSAA to turn back the clock and, basically, do a recount of sorts. Because the top-seeded Raiders lost in the quarterfinals to Moanalua, a Moanalua forfeit of all wins would mean Iolani should have been in the semifinals.
Since the HHSAA learned of the problem minutes before the Moanalua/Kamehameha-Hawaii semifinal game, Mugiishi argued that the only logical action was to delay the tournament and sort it out.
"I was obviously very disappointed about how the situation was handled. The game should not have been allowed to start," Mugiishi said. "If there was enough evidence to hold the player out of the game, there was enough evidence to postpone the start of that game. If he was, in fact, ineligible, the team was disqualified long before the game took place, and postponing the game would possibly allow you to correct the problem."
However, the game went on and Kamehameha-Hawaii won. By then, even Mugiishi says it was too late to rectify the situation. Could you still have Campbell, Moanalua's first opponent in the tourney, play Iolani in a quarterfinal replay? And would the winner of that game play Kamehameha-Hawaii in a semifinal? It just would not have been fair to KS-Hawaii.
The Moanalua situation wasn't made official until the next day, when the finals were played. However, Mugiishi had another point: since Iolani won its quarterfinal game with Moanalua by forfeit, shouldn't it be playing for third place instead of fifth? Thirty minutes before Iolani's fifth-place game with Kamehameha, while the Iolani team waited at its campus, Mugiishi was still debating the scenario with the HHSAA's executive director, Keith Amemiya, by phone.
In the end, the HHSAA executive board wouldn't budge and was unanimous in its decision to move ahead with the tourney. Mugiishi almost forfeited that fifth-place game in protest, but his players wanted one more game, so the team arrived at Blaisdell Arena just moments before tip-off.
"It might sound like a small thing, but our kids cared about playing for third or fifth," Mugiishi said. "(Playing for third) was their proper place in the tournament, and it's still a game for them last I checked."
Iolani, which had won five state titles in a row until 2006, chose not to participate in the halftime ceremony at the championship game.
Stevie Austin's disappointment is real.
"We've talked about it," Moanalua's floor leader said of the days following the tourney. "Every day, every class period it was, 'What happened? Are you OK?' It's depressing. They keep talking about it. It's very big news at our school. It's the talk of the school.
"Seems like it was all a nightmare that can't be changed. We all share the same feelings. It was our senior year and it sucks to go out like how we did. We wanted to win a state championship. Even if we didn't, getting disqualified over an ineligible player, not losing to another team, but to ourselves, that's probably the hardest thing to cope with."
The cat-quick 5-foot-9 guard was at his best in the state tourney. Twenty-five points in the opener against Campbell. Twenty-three in the upset of Iolani. Then 18 points and eight assists in the semifinal loss to Kamehameha-Hawaii.
The strange, unexpected fall began before the KS-Hawaii game. "After we did our warmups, (the ineligible player) told us he wasn't going to play. We were all in shock. Are you serious? We just thought it was that game," Austin said. "After we got back to the school, our AD told us the situation about everything, and that's when we realized it could jeopardize the whole, entire season."
Then came the penalties, by the book.
"The HHSAA did it how they did it in the past. They did what they had to because of the circumstances. I can't blame them for it," Austin said.
The team, he added, would've been content with a third-place game. "Well, I feel we shouldn't have been removed from the ceremony. We worked hard. It wasn't our team's fault that this occurred, but it's a tournament rule and that's how they handle these situations," Austin said. "I would've let us play the third-place game, even if was for fun and wouldn't have counted. I heard the parents of the Big Island team (Konawaena) flew in just to watch that game. We would've been fine. Not walking in the ceremony wasn't as big. Everyone knew we played in the tournament."
Beyond the wins and losses, he said there was no way to know about the detour ahead. The ineligible player, Tacon said, had a reputation as a solid student. Austin agreed.
"I would ask him every couple of weeks, and he said he was doing fine. He was never on AP (academic probation), so he was never a big concern. I think he didn't understand. If he knew, I don't think he would've cost us the season like this," Austin said.
"It's hard for him. He knows it's kind of his fault, but I'm not stressing on him. I'm trying to help him feel better. You can't change the outcome," he said.
"You just gotta move forward."
As of this week, the OIA is considering a forfeiture of two regular-season wins by Na Menehune.