Iolani is going for a fourth straight state title this week. Team members are (front row, arms crossed) Kyson Morikuni, Aaron Young, Kekai Kealoha. Second row: Ryan Dung, Wally Marciel, Blayne Yama, Vinny Nip, Kyle Pape. Back row: Barry Kang, Kawika Shoji, Taylor Mounts, Wes Eberlin, Jon Takamura and Kiran Kepo'o.

Surgeon by day,
basketball coach by night,
Mark Mugiishi is always

under pressure

One minute, he's in surgery, nimble fingers on a living canvas, a delicate high-wire performance in life and healing.

Moments later, he's back in coaching mode, preparing for the state basketball championship tournament. That also means accommodating the media -- coordinating a photo shoot date for his Iolani Raiders.


"This year, I've felt like we're more vulnerable. Because of our size, on a bad night, you could lose." --Mark Mugiishi, Iolani basketball coach

Such is the life of Mark Mugiishi, doctor by day, coach of three-time defending state champion Iolani by night.

After 15 years, the challenges still drive Mugiishi and his veteran staff.

Fortunately, challenges have not been a problem for his first team in the post-Derrick Low era. In fact, this may well be one of the more astounding Raider teams of all.

Two years ago, Kyle Pape, Vinny Nip and Kawika Shoji were hardly recognizable in the basketball world. Today, it's a much different story. Pape averages 18 points per game to lead a multi-faceted Iolani squad.

Still, take away the perfect record in league play and four years of unblemished results against Hawaii teams, and the Raiders aren't exactly a towering presence.

Intimidating? Not quite.

"This year, I've felt like we're more vulnerable," said Mugiishi, who guided Iolani to state titles in the '90s on the shoulders of 6-foot-4 twins Brad and Cord Anderson. "Because of our size, on a bad night, you could lose."

Punahou pushed Iolani furthest during the Interscholastic League of Honolulu season. The Buffanblu led the Raiders by five points in the final 20 seconds before losing.

"They're scary, and so is Campbell because of their size. On a night when you're not shooting well, that's a problem," Mugiishi said.

"Kamehameha played us tough every game but they're on the other side of the brackets."

Take away the myriad trophies and championship nets in the caverns of Iolani's athletic complex, and this year's team seems completely ripe for the picking.

Vultures swooned above when the preseason began. With Low, a three-time Star-Bulletin Mr. Basketball, flourishing at Washington State, there was little reason to doubt that Iolani's time at the top was done.

Instead, the Raiders stunned roundball watchers. "Our guys have speed. They get after people on defense like no other team we've had," Mugiishi said.

Iolani's swarming defense is definitely like nothing else in the state. The staff made a commitment to halfcourt defense, the better to make full use of their quickness. Offensively, though, the Raiders have the patience of old-school ballers in a pickup game.

"That's a good way to look at it, with the speed of 17-year-olds," Mugiishi said. "Our offense can be pretty with the give-and-go, the screening, the passing."

Pape, one of the team's three seniors, learned early.

"We saw through preseason and scrimmages that we can't force things," Pape noted. "We don't get a lot of offensive rebounds, so we don't get extra possessions."

Pape and Nip are deadly sharpshooters from the arc, stretching defenses out. When that happens, Kawika Shoji becomes a threat at the high post, finding backdoor cutters and hitting the occasional perimeter jump shot.

What separates Iolani from other good teams, however, is its role players.

Barry Kang evolved from junior varsity point guard to varsity starter, running the offense with efficiency. Low-post bangers Jon Takamura and Wally Marciel are invaluable in every way that doesn't show up in box scores.

"A lot of guys stepped up this year. Everyone knows his role, and that's been important for our success," Nip said.

Mugiishi, like all Iolani coaches, is loathe to focus on one player. It may seem humble, but there's more to it. Iolani's traditional motto, "One Team," is a reality for every player in the lineup.

Takamura, a standout linebacker on the football team, could do a lot more scoring on other teams. Winning titles, however, requires a clear understanding.

"I like the muscle part of it. It's just all-out effort," said Takamura, who patrols the paint alternately with Marciel. Former Raiders Todd Blankenship and Sean Carney set the bar for him.

"Todd always played smart. Sean was relentless on defense, on the boards," said Takamura, a 6-1 junior.

"Jon is definitely a rebounder. He sets solid screens for shooters," said Nip, who is one of the beneficiaries of Takamura's work.

"We're not as deep as we used to be, so we have to manufacture better in halfcourt."

Overconfidence is not in the Raider vocabulary, but success is.

"As long as we play within ourselves," Pape said. "The good thing is, we all know our roles."

The manufacturing of state championships didn't come simply with role playing or coaching adjustments, though they are key components. At Iolani, players took the initiative to improve year-round, mentally and physically.

"I definitely had to change my mindset. Before, I tried to get guys open," Nip said. "But now, I'm more aggressive."

In the off-season, they spent hour after hour chasing their dream.

"We worked on explosive drills to get me in the air faster," Nip noted. "You can always find Kyle, Kawika and Jon working in the weight room and the gym."

Pape, a Star-Bulletin All-State second-team pick in volleyball, saw the same thing.

"This is probably the first year since I've been on varsity that everybody comes in and works hard," he said.

That work ethic includes the four Raiders who played deep into the football postseason.

"They came in right after football and did the extra running, everything," Pape said of Takamura, Kiran Kepo'o, Blayne Yama and Kekai Kealoha.

Another state title isn't a given, and Mugiishi knows it. Pape has been resilient, playing through pain. Irritation under his left kneecap has forced him to wear a brace. Medication has eased some of the discomfort.

Kang and Takamura are dealing with sore ankles, while Marciel is playing with a banged-up knee.

Limitations are not a problem, not during state tournament week, and especially not for a squad that is truly "One Team."

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