By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
HONOKAA — One moment, Honokaa is at its best. The Dragons are sharing and caring and moving the basketball, and not surprisingly they have Kalaheo on the ropes.
Then, at the drop of a feather, the Dragons are at their worst. They get stagnant and things deteriorate quickly into what boys coach Cheyenne Meyer disdainfully describes as “let’s just dribble it and play pound-it-into-the-ground basketball.”
Just like that, the Mustangs, the defending Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II champions, are off and running on a 20-2 game-ending run.
It’s no wonder that Meyer refers to his team as sometimes exhibiting bipolar tendencies.
“Not sure what to expect,” he said. “We showed signs that we can be good. We’ve showed signs that we can be not good.”
One team positive would definitely be experience. Meyer returns all his players from last year on a veteran roster that has nine seniors and three juniors.
Of course, while the Dragons are used to playing together, they don’t always show it. And selfish play doesn’t jibe with Meyer, a 1990 Honokaa graduate who is far more inclined to talk about team concepts 20 times over before he breaks down individual play.
“We’ve got some of the same issues we had last year,” Meyer said. “A lot of individual basketball. We’re getting better at that, but here and there, the one-on-one stuff comes out. We’re looking for a shot before getting somebody else a shot. If we can’t correct that, then we’re going to be average again like last year.”
Honokaa went 3-8 last season, losing by a point to St. Joseph in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II quarterfinals. Its last state tournament appearance was in 2007, and its last BIIF championship came in 2001.
The Dragons might not always be inclined to pass as much as their coach would like, but they’re getting better at it. Meyer said selfish play had infested the program when he came back to Honokaa three seasons ago.
“We’re working on changing that,” he said. “If it was easy to do, I would have got rid of that stuff a long time ago. But it’s a challenge.”
Versatility could help ease the way.
Besides junior Wayne Vaoga on the high post, the Dragons are virtually interchangeable on the court, with players such as seniors Alika Alip, Isaiah Meyer, Keanu Freitas and junior Cjay Carvalho able to execute everything Meyer wants on offense.
Alip, last season’s leading scorer, is an adept ball-handler, while Isaiah Meyer, the coach’s nephew, can spot up and hit 3-pointers. Freitas can slash and get to the basket, while Carvalho also started last season but could provide a spark off the bench. Senior Keahi Esquerra could also start.
However, while Honokaa has athleticism to burn, it lacks height. Vaoga gives the Dragons a physical presence inside, but he’s listed at 5 feet, 10 inches.
“It is what it is,” Meyer said. “We don’t have a post presence. We didn’t have one last year. We can survive without it.”
But to do that, Honokaa will have to move the ball on offense to find open shooters and play good on-ball defense to keep it out of the middle.
In addition, Alip, Meyer and Freitas will all be looked upon to step up.
“I hope they have it in them,” Meyer said. “There are times that they show it and times that they don’t. Trying to figure out why they can’t do that consistently, instead of just doing it here and there.”
Two seasons removed from carrying the load at Laupahoehoe, senior Darus Ignacio also should give the Dragons key minutes off the bench.
“He does exactly what we ask him to do. We just need more guys like that,” said Meyer, who’s comfortable going about three deep right now on the bench.
The roller-coaster ride was in full swing during the preseason. Honokaa’s improved play was one of the talks of the Waiakea-Keaau Classic, which wrapped up last Saturday. Then a day later, the Dragons were substituting liberally before the starters came back in and the fourth quarter got away against Kalaheo.
Honokaa heads to Oahu for Kalaheo’s tournament this weekend, then hosts its own tournament starting Dec. 20.
Along the way, Meyer will continue to take the good with the bad.
“We’re at least playing harder, something we haven’t always done. Let’s see if we can build on that. We’ve got to play smarter,” he said.