Sacred Hearts Academy basketball team members include, front row, left to right, Stephanie Horn, Kylie Pasol, Samantha Saito, Karis Moi-Simeona and Rebecca Debo and, back row, Maleselina Manupuna, Cara Smith, Jessica Lindsay and Kiana Rapoza. The team is more afraid of a horror movie than a tough ILH schedule.

Playing with ‘Heart’

The Sacred Hearts basketball
team is surviving with a nucleus
of newcomers and underclassmen

FROM DIVISION and defection came unity.

It is not often that a basketball program can withstand massive personnel losses, but the Sacred Hearts girls basketball team proves that stronger teams are born out of adversity.

For a range of reasons, the Lancers lost 10 of their 14 varsity members from last year, including five starters. Four players graduated, two are continuing their basketball careers at other schools and four others transferred for academic and personal reasons.

Sacred Hearts athletic director Wade Okamura insists that there was no underlying cause for the turnover.

"There's an overemphasis on the loss of girls. There's turnover every year," said Okamura, who has headed the athletic department for two decades. "Some of them change for different reasons. ... I'm sure a lot of private schools encounter situations where, for financial reasons, kids transfer and go to public school.

"As far as losing the amount of kids we did, it was for a bunch of reasons. It wasn't like it was a mass exodus for the same reason. People had their own agendas or their own situations that warranted them to leave."

The offseason departures plunged the program into uncertainty, but Alan Matsui has been a stabilizing force since being named varsity head coach last October. The former junior varsity head coach elevated five sophomore JV players to varsity status and changed the focus of the team. Matsui stresses improvement and teamwork over winning.

Though not exactly thriving, Sacred Hearts (3-2) is surviving with a new style of basketball. Besides personnel changes, Sacred Hearts has shifted from an offense-oriented team to a defensive-minded team with an emphasis on fundamentals and conditioning.

"That's a big change from our teams in the past where we tried to be focused on offense," Okamura said. "We just lack the overall talent to be an outstanding offensive team. It just makes better sense for us to focus on playing better defense first, so that's the direction that Coach Matsui and his staff are taking the team."

Sacred Hearts lost its top two scoring weapons in Nicole Lehner (transferred to Kaiser) and Megan Burton (sitting out the season after transferring to Iolani). They were the top two scorers in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu last season. Two other all-league starters graduated and a third starter transferred for the second time in two years.

Only guard Samantha Saito, a part-time starter last season because injuries limited her playing time, had any real experience when the Lancers began practice in February.

But what the Lancers lost in offensive production, they make up for in team cohesion. Not being able to depend on one or two players has given every Lancer a sense of personal responsibility to contribute.

"Last year was an individually talented team," junior Karis Moi-Simeona said. "Megan and Nicky would have really great games, but everyone else wouldn't have much points.

"Now we play as a team. The points this year are evenly spread. Everybody produces. We're still a young team so it's all about the future. It's not about what we lost, but what we can do better. We don't dwell on the past."

Recovering from the defections wasn't easy. The Catholic all-girls school with an enrollment of 1,110 for 13 grades doesn't have the option of reloading like other league powerhouses. And most of the basketball players are multisport athletes who may not touch a basketball between seasons.

Along with the dearth of depth, Sacred Hearts doesn't have the facilities that other ILH schools enjoy. The Lancers' three teams (varsity, JV, intermediate) have to share a gym barely big enough to fit a regulation basketball court. There's no track for conditioning and warm-up occurs in the school's parking lot or on the streets of Kaimuki.

But those who returned consider the departures a blessing in disguise. Last year's team was divided into two main factions. This year's Lancers move as an army of one.

"This year's actually pretty fun," Saito said. "We're going to struggle, but we're having fun as a team. We work hard. We have fun at practice. Last year was different.

"I thought we weren't going to win any games this year, but it's been surprising. We've been working hard all this time and it's actually paying off. We've been winning games and we've been gaining friendships."

That much is true.

It is early Thursday evening when Moi-Simeona is asked about the differences between last year's team and this year's youth-laden squad. Practice has ended and the third-year varsity letterman mentions having trouble trying to convince her teammates to see "The Ring Two."

Unlike past seasons where the Lancers rarely spent time with one another off the basketball court, this year's group travels as a pack and only the fear-factor of the horror flick keeps Moi-Simeona from rallying her teammates to join her.

"We all get along really good," Moi-Simeona said. "We get along really well on and off the court. We're friends in school. We're like one big clique.

"Half the team disappeared, but it turned out better than we all thought. We lost a lot of good people. And the rumors before season started were like the season's going to be junk. Nobody's going to show up."

The group that did show up is in for tough times ahead in one of the most challenging leagues in the state. But the experience for the young players will be pivotal.

"We'll probably be in the bottom of the ILH," Matsui said. "Most of the girls are going to be returning next year, so I tell them, 'Learn, become better every day. We may not win a whole lot of games, but if we get better that's ultimately what we want.' "

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