Mid-Pacific boys ready to challenge the elite


POSTED: Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The good news for the Mid-Pacific Owls is that they haven't been ranked this early and this high - No. 7 in the Star-Bulletin Boys Basketball Preseason Top 10 - in quite some time.

  ;  The bad news? The Owls play in the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, where only two state-tournament berths were guaranteed last year. A third berth required a play-in game against the Big Island Interscholastic Federation's third-place team.

Take the good, take the bad, and the Owls are actually perched in a win-win scenario.

Gone is Kevin O'Connell, though new coach Nate Hu has guided MPI to a 4-2 mark in nonconference play. Mid-Pac won the co-championship of the McKinley Black and Gold Tournament two weeks ago and completed play in the 'Iolani Classic yesterday with a win over No. 9 Moanalua.

“;I really do expect more from our team. We've got a lot of growing to do and it's tough for them to learn a brand-new system in a short time,”; Hu said, referring to the new, later start date for all leagues - Dec. 1.

On paper: The Owls were 18-14 (5-9) last season, including a resounding 66-48 win over eventual state champion Punahou at Hemmeter Fieldhouse. Marcus Holyfield scored a career-high 34 points that night.

Holyfield returned this season an inch taller and significantly stronger after working hard in the weight room. Point guard Sampson Won is also back, providing steady leadership and a consistent perimeter shot.

Gone to graduation, though, were mainstays Devon Takenaka and Kellar Ellsworth. In all, there are just five returnees.

The skinny: Hu has coached without a break since graduating from MPI in 1995, first as a JV boys coach, then as an assistant to former varsity coach Bill Wheeler. He coached the JV girls the last few years. The common thread over those 13 seasons: asserting the tone.

“;I think we're more of an aggressive man team. That brings the intensity from the start,”; Hu said.

Holyfield, arguably the best defensive player in the state, establishes much of the tone. As a junior last year, he covered point guards and centers alike.

“;He always wants to pick up the best player on the other team. Today, he guarded Marcus Monroe,”; Hu said. Holyfield scored 21 points in the 52-40 win and limited Monroe to 10.

Though the Owls were 5-9 in league play, they lost a number of close games, including a season-ending 54-53 loss to Saint Louis in the playoffs. They have some height with seniors Brenton Beirne (6-foot-3), John Sherlock (6-3) and Matthew Reyes (6-2), but will still be one of the smaller teams in the ILH.

That's partly why one of the differences this season is defense up top.

“;I think we have the guard play to pressure the ball. We're not a big team that's going to slow the game down. We're going to push tempo, and pressing up gives more opportunities for us,”; he said.

X factor: The Owls will rely on depth and balanced scoring to keep pace, but Hu believes Cameron Roberts has a chance to become a key contributing scorer.

“;Cameron has a nice outside shot and can attack the basket when he needs to,”; Hu said of the 5-10 senior.

MPI continues nonconference play later this week in the St. Francis/Merv Lopes Classic.