By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
Former UCLA coach John Wooden believed the greatest asset a basketball player could have is quickness.
And that physical attribute could be the difference in just how successful the young Hilo High School girls team will be during the Big Island Interscholastic Federation season.
The Division I Vikings, under coach Ben Pana, excel in pressure defense and that ability to terrorize their opponents in full court situations often turns games into quickness drills in which the players with the fastest hands or feet get to the ball first, and with turnovers that equates to easy Hilo transition points.
“We’re young but I think we can be real competitive,” Pana said. “Our biggest strength is our speed. We can put on aggressive pressure full court and that creates a lot of problems for our opponents. My team is athletic and skilled. But it’s the team speed that allows us to play the style we want to play.
“We want to dictate the game’s tempo and that’s why it’s important for us to play with a lot of defensive intensity. We want to make them (opponents) do what we want them to do and that can lead to turnovers or rushed shots.”
Hilo has four juniors, two sophomores and three freshmen on its nine-member roster.
“We have good team chemistry,” Pana said. “These girls have worked really hard in the offseason to get ready for this year. I feel confident in every player, and with the style we play, we can play everyone. Despite being such a young team, we have smart decision-makers. Our juniors have played together since they were 7 years old. It’s a close group and the older girls have been the leaders — on the court, off the court, and in the classroom.
“For our juniors, it’s their third year on the varsity. They know what to expect and they have pushed the younger girls to get better every day. And the younger girls have stepped up to the challenge and gotten a lot better. So, it’s a young team, but it’s a team that is maybe ahead of schedule in reaching its potential.”
The juniors include Pana’s oldest daughter, Aliyah, a 5-foot-8 forward and three-year starter; Alyssa Perreira, a 5-4 guard; Amber Vaughn, a 5-2 shooting guard; and Kaily Harris, a 5-6 forward.
Aliyah Pana is one of the BIIF’s most versatile players, able to play or defend any position, and provides steady scoring and rebounding. Perreira and Vaughn are quick guards who fit perfectly into Hilo’s aggressive defensive style; and Harris, is a gutsy defender and smart offensive player.
The sophomores include Chailey Cabalis, a 5-7 guard/forward, and Raven Kaupu, a 5-8 forward. Cabalis is a blue-collar worker on defense and seems to come up with clutch plays. Kaupu is a tough defender and provides excellent depth off the Viking bench.
The freshmen are Alexis Pana, Coach Pana’s youngest daughter, Sharlei Bernisto-Graham and Shalyn Guthier.
Alexis Pana is a highly skilled 5-9 point guard who attacks the opposing defense off the dribble or can drain the 3-pointer. She also has terrific court vision, making her one of the top passers in the BIIF.
Bernisto-Graham, a 5-0 guard, is a relentless defender and rock-solid offensive player.
Guthier, a 5-7 forward, is a rugged defender who can guard big or small opponents in Hilo’s press or half-court man defense.
“Since these girls have played together a lot, we feel we know what our best combinations are,” Ben Pana said. “They understand what we want to do on defense. And on offense, they know we want them to be aggressive going to the basket. We want them to attack and if they’re double teamed, then find the open shooters.”
The biggest challenge so far for Pana and his coaching staff — Gavin DeMello, Aaron Kaleo, Lidsey Iyo, Chelsey Santos and conditioning guru Dave Baldwin — is to keep the young Vikings motivated.
“Coming into every game, we want them to not get overconfident and take any opponent for granted,” Pana said. “So it’s our job to get the girls ready. We want to start off fast, not let our opponent get off to a big lead and then have our girls wake up.
“We need to be ready from the tip-off and play with high intensity all the way through.”
Pana calls defending BIIF and state champion Konawaena as the D-I team to beat this year.
“They’re the defending state champions and earned the tag as the favorite,” Pana said. “On the East side, Waiakea is the defending champion and won it the last three years. We know Waiakea will be tough but we’re looking forward to playing them. We played them twice in the summer and once in the preseason and won all three. That has given our girls a lot of confidence, but we know it’s going to be a battle.”
The third-year Vikings coach said winning the BIIF D-I title is his team’s first goal.
“We would like to win the BIIF and get to the state tournament,” he said. “And our ultimate goal is to win the state championship. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
Viking notes: As a Hilo High School senior in 2000, Ben Pana helped lead the unbeaten Vikings to the state title, rolling over Oahu Interscholastic Association powerhouse Kalaheo in the final at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu. …
Pana praised Viking football coach Dave Baldwin for running the school’s conditioning program, which Pana says has made a difference with the Vikings girls basketball players.
“Dave does a great job with our weight training and speed workouts,” Pana said. “We feel our girls are in excellent condition and can keep up our fast-paced style of play throughout the whole game.” …
The Hilo girls participate at school in the national “Project Unify” program in which the team works with Special Olympic athletes. Hilo is only one of three schools in the state — the other two are on Oahu — to participate in the project.
“It’s a great program and teaches a lot of life lessons,” Pana said. “In our Hilo High basketball program, we do a lot of community service stuff because we want our girls to be more than just basketball players, we also want them to become better people.”