Kaiser is ranked seventh in the Star-Bulletin Girls Basketball Top 10. Team members are: front row, left to right, Kilioe Aliifua, Sharde Pratt, Nicole Lehner, Jaime Nerona and Kehau Bangay; back row, Kelsey Beck, Renee Shitanishi, Aja Yamamoto, Kuhia Arakaki, Amber Nakachi, Chelsea Kapuniai and U'ilani Kaonohi.

Cougars bite back

The Kaiser basketball team
overcomes injuries and adversity
to move up in the rankings

Eleven months and one week ago, Kaiser finally got over the hump.

Laden with talent, the young Lady Cougars had endured an 18-point shellacking at Kalaheo during regular-season play. They still reached the playoffs, earned a state berth and were in the Oahu Interscholastic Association third-place game against Kalaheo.

On May 14, Kehau Bangay scored 14 points as Kaiser edged its nemesis 44-43. The Cougars went on to play in three state tournament games, losing in the consolation final 42-41 to Honokaa. All the while, their appetite for more success grew.

Today, Kaiser is ranked seventh in the Star-Bulletin Girls Top 10 poll. A battle with rival Kalaheo tips off tonight at the Lady Cougars gym, with both teams currently sharing second place in the OIA East.

At 4-1 in league play (10-4 overall), Kaiser has a chance to establish new territory.

"Our coaches talk about rankings, how we've been moving up," said 5-8 forward Sharde Pratt. "It's better to start at the bottom and move up than go from top to bottom."

Center Kilioe Aliifua, averaging 21.2 points per game, sees more of an effect on fans than herself.

"It shows that we're working hard as a team and getting better, but it doesn't really matter much," the 5-foot-11 senior said. "It's good because Kaiser isn't known for basketball."

The rising rep of Kaiser has its price. Pratt, the only underclassman who starts, has seen more than her share of opposition.

"This season is a lot harder. Every time I turn around, there are two or three people surrounding me," the 5-8 junior said.

Her average is a modest 10.6 points per game, but Pratt's deft passing skills have helped Aliifua, arguably the toughest low-post scorer in the OIA. Reaching the playoffs isn't enough now.

"Hopefully, we'll get at least second in the OIA," Pratt said. "I did well last year, so a lot of people are expecting a lot of me; my coaches, my dad, the players."

Aliifua has her heights set high for the present and future.

"For myself, I expect a lot. It's my senior year. I want to do good and play in college," said Aliifua, who already has a season-high 28-point game.

With Aliifua and Pratt patrolling the paint, Kaiser has perhaps the best 1-2 low-post combo in the league.

On the perimeter, returnees Jaime Nerona and Bangay bring last year's experience to the floor. Newcomer Nicole Lehner, a transfer from Sacred Hearts, rounds out perhaps Kaiser's best starting lineup ever.

Reaching its potential, however, hasn't been simple.

The summer was unkind to Bangay, a 5-5 spark plug who can play the point and wing. She returned to the court a few weeks ago after extensive rehab on an injured right knee. The fact that she's playing is a testament to her willpower.

Last summer, she suffered through a night of agony because of major back pain.

"I went to a lomi lomi (massage) lady. She said, 'Don't play.' I had three games the next day. She said sit out the first two," Bangay recalled.

Bangay decided against the advice. She played in the first two games, felt fine, and participated in a third contest. As she went up for a layup, a defender collided with her. She landed awkwardly, tweaking the right knee.

"She never went to the doctor for it," said Pratt, who played on that same summer team.

A month later, in another tournament, Bangay reinjured the knee, tearing the ACL.

"I thought we were (in trouble)," Pratt recalled. "She's our No. 2 dribbler, has mean moves, and she's a great passer. But more than that, she really keeps the team together."

Bangay had surgery and went into rehab immediately.

"I didn't want to sit on the side during my senior season," said Bangay, a class vice president who rushes from meetings for Project Graduation to basketball practice.

COACH LISA Mann says it's a different team with Bangay on the floor. Sometimes leadership means knowing the emotional temperature of a team. Bangay measures it, even affects it, with her sense of humor.

When Aliifua departed on a mainland trip one week before the OIA opener, Mann was more than a little worried. Defending OIA champion Kahuku was on the horizon, and she wasn't sure when Aliifua was going to return.

Mann wasn't the only one concerned.

"I was stunned, but we have other girls who can work just as hard," Pratt said. "But it did scare me."

"I'm just glad she came back in time," Bangay said.

Aliifua returned before that March 16 opener and scored 19 points. Kahuku won 66-60, but the Lady Cougars knew at that point that the OIA title was within reach.

WHEN LEHNER arrived, it was still summer of 2004. A good listener, she bonded quickly with her new teammates. With the graduation of point guard Shera Yamamoto, Lehner is a big plus -- especially at 5-7 -- in the backcourt.

"She's another Shera," Bangay said. "I came back because of her."

Pratt agreed.

"If she wasn't here, I don't think we'd be doing as well. She can do anything. Her 3-point shot is good. She can drive through the middle and she steals basketballs from anyone," she said.

Nerona has a bit of advice to future Kaiser players about the head coach.

"Don't be scared of her. She's not what she seems. She yells a lot, but it's only to make you better," Nerona said.

Bangay is in her fourth season playing for Mann.

"She's cool," Bangay said of the eighth-year coach. "But don't talk when she's talking. Other than that, she's hilarious. I can call her on anything, and she'll call me on everything, too."

Mann, a former standout at Kaiser who played forward at Hawaii, has learned the balance between friend and authority figure.

"They're a little nutty at times," Mann said. "But they know when to listen. When it's time to practice, it's time to practice."

Which is why, on Monday, the Cougars were shocked to learn that Mann wasn't there. Instead, she finally took time off to get surgery for a brutally painful back injury.

"I didn't even know about that. She didn't tell any of us," Pratt said. "But maybe she doesn't want us to worry."

A day after the surgery, Mann was on her feet and back at practice. She'll be on her feet, literally, quite a bit more. Sitting causes more pain, while standing relieves it. Rest? It's not even a consideration, not for the players, and certainly not for Mann, who sees immense potential for her players.

"I definitely think Kilioe, Kehau, Jaime and Nikki all, if they want to, there are opportunities out there for them," Mann said of the seniors. "From one to 14, all of our kids contribute. We just gotta believe in ourselves and play with confidence."

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