By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Basketball is big in Serbia, but Jovan Crnic wanted more. His keen vision extends far beyond the court.
Crnic was surfing the Internet in his homeland a few years ago when he found out about Hawaii Preparatory Academy, and the school was just what he was looking for.
“The goal was to achieve school and sport at the same time,” he said. “Back home it’s really weak, the education part. You have to do sports or school. Here I can do both.”
He didn’t know much about Hawaii before leaving for Waimea, but he imagined coconuts and picked up a few impressions from TV.
“I watched ‘Baywatch Hawaii,’ and I was like “Wow,”’ he said.
That show may have depicted the ideal notion of paradise, but Crnic’s experience so far has been everything he could have imagined.
He’s glad to be here, and HPA sure is happy he’s here.
The Ka Makani had never won a Big Island Interscholastic Federation boys basketball title before Crnic arrived last year. But the talented 6-foot-4 point guard helped HPA finally change that as it took the Division II crown and then finished a program-best third at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament.
The Ka Makani are younger this season and need to break in a slew of new starters, but Crnic feels if players step up that there is an obvious progression that can be made.
“We have a lot of talent and stuff that we can improve on, and we will,” the senior said. “But it’s a really great group of guys and we are really competitive. My goal is definitely winning states. I’m positive and sure that we can do that. But first we need to win BIIFs to prove that we deserved it last year.”
Just as attending HPA offers Crnic a chance to have it all in terms of school and athletics, he brings a similar do-it-all versatility to the court. He’s happy to play facilitator and get other players involved, but if the situation dictates he can get looks for himself, using his athleticism to attack the basket or his height to post up.
While he may need to take over and try to score more this season, that’s not his plan when games start.
“There were times in the preseason where I had to score 30 points, and we won and I’m satisfied,” he said. “Some games I scored 12, and we still won, and that’s the purpose.
“Sometimes they’ll put two guys on me, and I know someone is open automatically. I just pass and find open people. Don’t really care about points. I really like passing and getting people involved.”
The Ka Makani lost six seniors, including leading scorers Dakota Berman and Tyler Van Kirk, as well as athletic slasher Keanu Yamamoto. Van Kirk was the team’s leading rebounder, and his presence inside could prove the hardest to replace.
“We’ll have to do that as a community,” said Fred Wawner, co-coach along with Dave Huntington. “Rebounding is our biggest hole.”
With excitement in basketball on the rise at HPA, there are no shortage of options on the roster.
“More depth than we’ve had in the past,” Wawner said. “This year Jovan’s had to look to score more. Our job is to get other guys opportunities to take the pressure off him. This league is too good to just rely on one player. Everybody’s got to play their roles.”
Junior Kalan Camero got minutes last season and will play in the backcourt and see some time at point guard to allow Crnic to play off the ball.
At forward, senior Kama DeSilva enters his fourth season on the varsity, while senior Sefa Rocha-Tufaga is an inside-out player.
Sophomore Nicolas Palleschi, 6-3, and junior Kenji Stinson will get increased playing time, while juniors Kellen Gillins and Buck Thomas and sophomore Hide Akai all will be looked upon to contribute.
“We’re at the point that we have a lot of guys with similar skills, so they’ll all get a lot of minutes,” Wawner said. “There is more of an emphasis on that than on who will start.”
HPA’s preseason got off to a rough start with a lopsided loss to Division I Konawaena, a game that Crnic called “a cold shower for us.” However, he was encouraged last week when the Ka Makani took the Wildcats to the wire in a 48-44 loss at the Punahou tournament.
“We will beat them in one of the (regular season) games,” he said.
HPA starts its season Friday at home against Laupahoehoe, and the first big test comes Wednesday against Kohala in Kapaau.
Berman’s 3-point accuracy will be missed, forcing the Ka Makani to find new ways to score this season and find an identity.
However, Crnic has taken it upon himself to improve his shooting. He often stays after practice in an empty Castle Gym, even on Friday nights, to work on one of few deficiencies in his game.
It’s all part of the master plan he hatched before he left his family and the country he misses: improving his opportunities to play in college. He and his coach say recruiters at all levels have expressed interest, but Crnic’s taking a low-key approach.
“Not getting stressed out about it,” he said. “Just being patient and working hard and seeing what’s going to happen.”