Editor’s note: Longtime sports editor Bill O’Rear will retire from the Tribune-Herald on Friday after more than 30 years covering Big Island sports. Today, he writes the first of two final columns. The second column will run in Friday’s edition.
When I arrived in Hilo in 1976 as a walk-on basketball player at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the County of Hawaii was using a promotional campaign to attract visitors that featured the theme Big Island Mo Bettah.
Now, 38 years later, those four words still ring true — you’re just not going to find a better place to live and participate in sports than on the Big Island.
Over the years and including more than three decades of being a sports writer here, I’ve seen UH-Hilo, under legendary coach Jimmy Yagi, spark the rise of small college basketball in Hawaii with his “Vulcan Fever” teams in the late 1970s that won three District II titles and went on to play in three NAIA national championships in Kansas City. Mo. Those were the days when the UH-Hilo teams packed Hilo Civic and had about a dozen games shown on statewide television.
Those teams featured some outstanding players — such as Jay “The Bird” Bartholomew, Gilbert Hicks, Mark Lovelace, Tom Zeimantz, James Bradley, Todd Zirbel, Neville Brandt, Pat Fitzgerald, Matt Smith and Ia Saipaia.
And Yagi’s 1976-77 and 1977-78 squads were considered by many fans as the Vulcans’ version of UH-Manoa’s “Fab Five,” which is still considered the best collegiate basketball team that the state has ever produced.
UH-Hilo women’s volleyball program, under Hall of Fame coach Sharon Peterson, then upped the ante, winning six national championships during an amazing run that was fueled by tremendous Hawaii talent, All-Americans such as Tanya Fuamatu, Alofa Tagatese, Edie Manzano-Frazier, Charlene Kahananui, Carla Carpenter-Kabalis and Nalani Spencer, to name just a few of Peterson’s talented players.
UH-Hilo’s baseball program, under Joey Estrella, started from scratch and the Vulcans went on to become an NAIA power in the early years before moving to the NCAA level, first at Division I and later D-II. Estrella had one pitcher, Tyler Yates from Kauai, that went on to play Major League Baseball, and the UH-Hilo teams featured many outstanding players over the years, including a hard-hitting Vulcan named Kaha Wong.
Of course, Wong’s sons, Kolten (St. Louis Cardinals) and Kean (Tampa Bay Rays) have gone on to play professional baseball and are providing inspiration for young, upcoming talent throughout Hawaii.
UH-Hilo also had some superb golf, tennis, softball and cross country standouts over the years, highlighting a successful all-around program that combined Hawaii and mainland talent to compete against the best small college teams in the country.
I’ve also seen a tremendous amount of talented individuals as well as high school and youth baseball, softball and volleyball teams shine over the years — including MMA world champion BJ Penn, a soft-spoken gentleman outside the octagon and one of the UFC’s greatest fighters ever; a handful of Little League, PONY and Cal Ripken champions; and two RBI girls softball champions.
Big Island athletes have proven that they can compete against the best in almost any sport, and many have elevated to a championship level while spurred on by their pride for Hawaii, a big heart, and a determination to fight through all adversity to make it to the top.
As a sports writer, I’ve seen numerous state championships in various sports, including a run of 20 consecutive boys prep basketball championships on Oahu. It was during that hoops stretch that I witnessed Hilo High win two state titles; the first in 1991 and second in 2000, and both provided incredible chicken-skin moments for Big Island fans.
In 1991, the Vikings, under the late head coach Larry Manliguis, fought through two close wins (Kahuku and Kamehameha-Kapalama) to face Oahu Interscholastic League champion and top seed Kalaheo in the state final before more than 4,000 fans at Blaisdell Arena. Led by Shon Malani, Paul Lee, Herman Medeiros and Ben Pana, the Vikings raced out to a 17-4 lead on their way to a lopsided victory.
But the biggest chicken-skin moment came late in the fourth quarter when Big Island fans chanted “Hilo, Hilo, Hilo” as the Vikings pulled away and it became obvious that Hilo would claim the coveted title.
Malani was named the state Player of the Year and Lee earned first-team honors as well as the Most Outstanding Player award in the state tournament.
In 2000, with Manliguis at the helm again, the Vikings ran and pressed their way to the title, beating Iolani, Baldwin and finally St. Louis in the championship game. The Vikings were led by Jason Mandaquit, Kimo Keiter-Charles and Wes Martinez, with all three earning all-tournament and all-state honors. Mandaquit also was named the state Player of the Year and Manliguis the Coach of the Year.
In winning those two state titles, Larry joined older brother Al as a state champion coach. Al Manliguis, who had coached the Vikings for 28 seasons before Larry took over, captured the title in 1964 and finished second in 1967 and 1973.
Larry’s 2001 squad also finished second in a thrilling triple-overtime loss to Kamehameha-Kapalama in what some state tournament basketball fans have called the “most exciting state tournament championship game ever.”
Al’s 1978-79 squad, led by seniors Reed Sunahara, Rene Sanchez and Guy Alameda, was considered a strong state title contender that season. But the 6-foot-4 Sunahara broke a bone in his foot in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation playoffs and he never played in the state tournament. Punahou, featuring star center Dan Hale and a reserve named Barry Obama, won the state title that season.
Sunahara, perhaps the greatest multisport athlete in BIIF history, was an all-state performer for the Vikings in basketball, baseball and volleyball. He went on to play volleyball four years at UCLA, became a two-time All-American, and competed on three national championship teams.
Sunahara is my favorite Big Island male athlete over the years. He not only went on to become a highly successful collegiate player and earned his college degree, but he also became a well respected collegiate women’s volleyball coach, first at the University of Cincinnati and now at the University of Buffalo.
Former Honokaa basketball standout Keisha Kanekoa is my favorite Big Island female athlete over the years. She had a sterling four-year prep career for Dragons coach Daphne Honma, including twice being named the state tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. She went on to start four years at point guard for the University of Hawaii’s Rainbow Wahine, scoring more than 1,000 points in her productive career.
Kanekoa also turned in the greatest individual prep basketball performance I saw over the decades — a 30-point explosion against Big Island rival Konawaena that snapped the Wildcats’ 61-game winning streak during the 2006 season.
The Wildcats, under the brilliant coaching of Bobbie Awa, led by six points late in regulation when Honokaa called time out. With the crowd still buzzing, a Konawaena fan yelled out “62, baby!” as the Dragons headed to their bench.
But Kanekoa, a 5-foot-6 junior guard, fought off leg cramps to spark a 6-0 run and send the game into overtime. Honokaa then pulled out a thrilling 42-40 win over the talented Wildcats before a jam-packed Honokaa Armory.
I covered that Honokaa-Konawaena thriller and sat beside ex-Vulcans coach Jimmy Yagi. Kanekoa’s performance left Yagi almost speechless — and if you know Coach Yagi, that rarely happens.
Awa wasn’t too happy about that loss, but the highly respected Konawaena coach has built a powerhouse in Kealakekua and her terrific teams have won five state titles and finished second twice. Her last championship squad included her daughter, Dawnyelle, and Lia Galdeira. They both went on to play for Washington State and are enjoying quality careers in Pullman, Wash. Galdeira, perhaps the greatest multisport female athlete in BIIF history, has been an all-conference player for the Cougars and some college insiders believe she may eventually play in the WNBA, a first for Hawaii.
Through the years, the Big Island produced several girls basketball players that went on to play at the collegiate level, including Kohala’s Lynette Liu, Hilo’s Kaui Wakita, Vicky Tagalicod, Leilani Galdones and Onaona Miller, Kealakehe’s Saundra Cariaga, Honokaa’s Sissy Gambill and Kanekoa, Kamehameha’s Ashlee Kalauli, Casey Poe and Kanisha Bello, Konawaena’s Jazzmin Awa-Williams, Hina Kimitete, Jessica Hanato, Nancy Hoist and Thea Hanato-Smith, and Waiakea’s Kalei Namohala, Jenny Kaeo, Ashley Kualii and Amy Kaaiakamanu.
The Big Island has also produced many talented athletes in other sports, such as golf, volleyball, baseball, football, air riflery, tennis, wrestling and martial arts, to mention a few, and those individuals have enjoyed fine collegiate careers.
And for more than 30 years, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see many of those great athletes and teams showcase their skills and be rewarded for their efforts with local, state, regional, national and even world championships.
In being a sports writer, you’re not going to always make everyone happy. You’ll have your supporters and critics. But as one veteran reporter once told me: “If everyone is mad at you, you’re probably being fair.”
That’s all I ever tried to do — to work hard and be fair, and let the chips fall where they may.
I would like to sincerely thank you Big Island athletes, coaches and fans for allowing me to share in many of those special memories over the years, and thank the Hawaii Tribune-Herald and West Hawaii Today for the humbling opportunity to have one of the best jobs around in covering local sports.
As I prepare to move to San Diego in the near future to join my wife, Maureen, and son, Brady, I will fondly remember and totally agree with those four words from the county’s 1976 promotional campaign: Big Island Mo Bettah.
Thanks everyone for the wonderful memories.