By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kamehameha coach Garrett Arima was greeted by a slew of fresh faces as he gathered his girls basketball team and posed what has become an annual preseason question.
“How many of you believe you can win a BIIF title and a state title?”
There were some wide eyes in the group, but the new-look Warriors put their hands in the air.
When you’re playing for the five-time defending Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II champion and a school that’s been to six of the past eight Hawaii High School Athletic Association title games, why lower expectations now?
“This year, although we’re so inexperienced, we’ve got the same resolve,” said Arima, who enters his fourth season. “That made me really happy. We’re all in the same boat.”
And Casey Poe is undoubtedly the captain.The Warriors have their share of holes, and they’ll turn to the 5-foot-10 junior guard/forward/center/team leader/grade checker to plug any and all of them.
“Casey’s the most versatile player I’ve coached,” Arima said. “She can play one through five, and she’ll be expected to play one through five. Wherever we need her.
“When she puts her mind to something, she’s going to finish. She’s going to do it. She’s had that mentality to take over since she was a freshman.”
As far as accolades and team success, it will be hard for Poe to trump her sophomore season.
After earning BIIF Player of the Year in the East Division, Poe helped Kamehameha cash in on its state championship-or-bust mentality, averaging 17.7 points in three relatively easy victories on Oahu and earning MVP honors as the Warriors won their third HHSAA crown.
Motivated to make amends for a three-point loss to Radford in the 2011 title game, last year’s veteran squad played with a clear purpose all season. With only four players back, these Warriors are still finding their identity as they build around Poe.
“This year, we’re the underdogs, and I love it,” said Arima, who pointed to Hawaii Prep and Honokaa as the favorites.
The biggest shoes to fill from last season are those of Casey’s older sister, Chelsea Poe, a floor general who graduated.
Senior Namele Naipo-Arsiga will move over from shooting guard to start at the point, though Casey Poe will step in at times to run the team, as will sophomore Riana Arima, the coach’s daughter, depending on the offensive set or what kind of defensive pressure the team is facing.
“It’s a lot more challenging than last year,” Casey Poe said. “But we’re actually pretty strong and we can do it. I wouldn’t say it’s my team, but I would say I’m one of the leaders.”
That leadership comes on and off the court.
“For example, I went in to check on the team’s academics to make sure they’re all eligible to play. I watch for the academics, too,” she said.
With an eye on earning a scholarship to play in college, she’s worked on improving her shooting. Though the coaching staff has to remind her not settle for jumpers, since her versatility gives opponents fits when she attacks the basket or posts up on the inside.
And her length comes in particularly handy on the other end of the floor.
“Defense is how we win games,” she said. “We’ll win on our defense. I feel like I’m longer and quicker. I feel I can be more intimidating and in position when my hands are up.”
Sophomore forward Makamae Gabriel got limited playing time last season but will start at power forward and complement Poe in the post.
Another new starter is Riana Arima, an effective shooter and scorer who was the first player off the bench last season.
The fifth spot was up for grabs in the preseason and could come down to a battle of freshmen.
“A lot more teaching this year,” Garrett Arima said. “More fundamentals, from dribbling to passing, all the detailed stuff that we had to revisit.
“As coaches, we’re tested this year. Last season, we came to practice, but the girls new the system.”
Even with the youth, the team’s goal has remained the same, and so has the defensive-first philosophy. That’s one reason Arima demands intensity, whether it be in a practice or a game.
“There is never a time to leave it in your pocket,” Arima said. “You can always play defense. We tell the girls, you can have a bad-shooting night, but never a bad defensive night.
“Opposing coaches know exactly what we’re going to do: pressure defense. Not necessarily making steals, but forcing bad shots and forcing tempo.”