Taylor Smith had no regrets leaving Rhode Island and returning to Hawaii to play basketball for Kalaheo.

Taylor is made
for basketball

Senior Taylor Smith is excited
to be a part of the winning
girls program at Kalaheo

t has been a life of new beginnings and second chances for Kalaheo senior Taylor Smith.

This year's Hawaiian Airlines Girls State Basketball championship will be more about putting the right ending on a high school career that has seen its share of ups and downs.

After spending her freshman year in Rhode Island, Smith, who attended intermediate school in Hawaii, returned to the islands around Christmas. It was just in time for the girls basketball season at Kalaheo.

She was a welcome addition for coach Chico Furtado. He had just lost an eventual two-time All-State player in Latoya Wily, who moved back to Kahuku for her junior season. He also lost eventual third-team All-State selection Bre Carson, who transferred to McKinley.

"I'd known (Taylor) from a lot of the camps and clinics we ran, but when she moved to Rhode Island, I didn't think I'd see much of her again," Furtado said. "But I got a call from her dad around November or December of her sophomore year saying they were coming back, so it was some good news, especially after Latoya and Bre left."

It was a move that Smith was ready for. After becoming friends with some of the current Mustangs players in intermediate school, Smith relished the idea of moving back and playing basketball with them.

"I was ready to leave Rhode Island," Smith said.

"I knew Shantel (Marumoto) and Kaila (Samson) and had grown up watching Kalaheo basketball, so I was excited to get to be a part of it."

The Mustangs won five consecutive Oahu Interscholastic Association titles heading into that year. But despite a solid performance from Smith in which she was named to the All-OIA second team, the Mustangs had their run of titles snapped by Moanalua and didn't qualify for the state tournament.

"Her first year, she came in and made an impact right away," Furtado said. "It was tough learning a new system and getting used to playing with the other girls and we struggled a little bit."

As a junior, with a year under her belt, Smith was ready to lead Kalaheo back to its winning ways. That's when a broken foot suffered in her last preseason game ended Smith's regular season. She returned to play in the playoffs, but wasn't 100 percent.

"That was definitely tough. I never had a serious injury like that so to just be sitting and watching, it gave me a different perspective on the game," Smith said. "I watched it from a different view, and I think it remotivated me to get out there work 10 times harder."

Smith sat out a summer league at Kalaheo, partly to heal from her injury, but also to get ready for a busy month. She played for the Mile High Magic, an AAU team out of Denver that traveled around the United States for various tournaments, including stops in San Diego, Memphis and Atlanta. It allowed Smith to showcase her talents for college coaches all over the country, including those at Pepperdine.

"(Pepperdine) has always been one of my favorite schools and I've always liked the West Coast," Smith said. "They saw me play in California, called me up, had me come visit, offered me a scholarship, and I said yes immediately."

With her future now squared away, Smith focused her attention on her senior season at Kalaheo. After the disappointments of the team's struggle her sophomore year and her injury-plagued junior campaign, this has been her one last chance to put her own stamp on her times at Kalaheo.

"Every now and then I look up at the banners, see all of them we have and it makes me want to put our own banner up there," Smith said. "We want to set our own mark on the program."

Smith led the way as the Mustangs looked to do just that, steamrolling through the regular season with an 11-1 record. In the last week of the regular season, the Mustangs defeated two Star-Bulletin Top 10 teams in Kahuku and Kaiser to finish tied with the Red Raiders for first place in the OIA East. They then won a coin flip to host games in the OIA tournament.

However, after an incident involving a fan and a referee at Kalaheo's final home game, the Mustangs lost out on hosting any tournament games and instead found themselves playing at Radford, where they were upset by in the quarterfinals by Roosevelt -- a team that they had beaten twice convincingly in the regular season.

"To find out that we lose home court due to some sanction because of the incident, it was disappointing for the kids," Furtado said. "How something could be taken away from them that they worked very hard for on the basis of things they had nothing to do with, it was difficult to explain to them, especially when I didn't agree with it."

After failing to put themselves in position to win the OIA title for the first time in three years, the Mustangs found themselves in danger of missing the state tournament and needed to defeat Radford and Moanalua just to finish fifth and receive the league's last tournament berth.

"It had been stressful week and I actually thought we were done for states (with the Roosevelt loss), so I was heartbroken," Smith said.

"But to find out we still do have a shot, it kind of put a fire back into us."

Smith scored 17 points against Radford and then backed it up with a 19-point performance against Moanalua as Kalaheo won both games by double digits. With a berth in the state tournament now clinched and the sting of the incident and subsequent Roosevelt loss gone, the Mustangs have capitalized on their second chance, and with Smith healthy and ready to go, look to win that elusive state championship.

The fifth-ranked Mustangs (20-5) have never won it, and have three second-place finishes in the last seven years.

"We have experience with all five of our seniors back and if we stay focused we're a good bet," Furtado said. "And if we win four games in a row, somebody better buy me a car."

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