By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
HONOKAA — At the end of a recent Honokaa High girls basketball practice, coach James Lukzen and his assistants took turns talking to the Dragons about the importance of focus, intensity and teamwork.
According to senior Yvonne Daniels, the lectures are an common occurrence at practice, in part because the coaches know how far the team can go this season.
“Our coach says potential is just a word until we show it,” she said. “But they see potential. Big potential.”
Lukzen points to the school’s championship banners on the south wall of Honokaa Armory and an interesting pattern that’s developed in girls basketball.
Honokaa usually strikes it big every four to five years, owning Big Island Interscholastic Federation titles in 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2006 …
Even with the move down to Division II, the Dragons are a year or two overdue. That fact is not lost on Daniels.
“We want to put that banner up on the wall this year,” she said. “But it’s going to start at practice.
“If you work together, than you get the win.”
That hasn’t always been the case in the preseason, which has been rough by design. Honokaa’s taken its lumps against four of the top Division I teams in the state, losing to Konawaena, Punahou, Lahainaluna and Hilo.
“The idea was to get them ready for the playoffs,” said Lukzen, who’s entering his fourth season. “It’s hard to assess where we are at when we’re playing really good teams, but we still are inconsistent. Our biggest problem is working on consistency in intensity.”
Still, when Honokaa is clicking, Lukzen feels like this could be his best team.
The Dragons are deep, especially with the addition of transfers Keana Kaohimauna (formerly of Kamehameha) and Shayla Ignacio (Hawaii Prep), both of whom decided to play for their hometown school. Better yet for Honokaa, the pair left the two schools that figure to be its biggest competition in Division II.
“Our team got better because we got shooters, Keana and Shayla,” Lukzen said. “Most of our players were slashers. The hardest thing is we don’t know who is going to start. We got eight girls fighting for the spots. Our strength is our bench. Every game has been a different lineup.”
That’s a luxury Lukzen doesn’t usually have, and he plans to take advantage of his depth by featuring a lot of full-court man defense this season.
“It energizes our team,” Lukzen said.
Daniels and junior Shemika Frazier are two of those aforementioned slashers.
Daniels, small forward, and junior center Hunter Liftee were second-team all-BIIF selections last season on a Honokaa club team that led Kamehameha in the fourth quarter of last season’s BIIF title game before falling 45-40.
With the team motto “One Team, One Fight,” Honokaa is seeking its third straight trip to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament.
“Just sticking together,” Liftee said. “Don’t give up on each other, even though we’re down a lot of times.
“We have to work as a team. We’re not really there yet.”
The Dragons lack height, but the 5-foot-9 Liftee, who also plays volleyball and runs track, is intent on providing a stronger presence inside.
The team’s leading returning scorer, she’s averaged double digits in scoring during the preseason.
“I’m trying to be the best post on this island,” Liftee said said. “I’ve been working hard since summer, and I’m getting there. My moves actually have gotten better. Volleyball has conditioned me well. I can jump higher.”
Freshman Kizzah Maltezo has emerged as a candidate at point guard, and that will allow last season’s floor general, sophomore Jasmine Castro, to move to power forward.
“Jasmine has all the moves,” Lukzen said.
Frazier is another reliable ballhander in case teams try to press the Dragons, while junior Shereena Bird, whether she starts or not, provides a defensive presence and instant energy.
“She’s in the game a lot because she hustles,” Lukzen said.
Ignacio, a sophomore, will play shooting guard, while Kaohimauna, a senior, is in the mix at small forward. Junior Helen Iona will backup Liftee at center.
Rebounding could be an issue with its limited height. However, Honokaa hopes to make up for it with versatility and athleticism on both ends, taking care of the ball on offense and pinching the lanes on defense to keep the ball out of the middle.
The Dragons continue their preseason Friday and Saturday at Keaau’s tournament, with games on tap against Ka’u, Kealakehe and Keaau that should provide a truer measuring stick of their progress heading into the regular season in January.
“I think we have the (players), but we need the effort,” Lukzen said. “You don’t need the skill, but it takes heart and effort. We remind them of that every day.”