By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Things are much different now at St. Joseph, a small school that often relied on teamwork to jump over its shortcomings to become a Big Island Interscholastic Federation title contender the last six seasons.
Since statewide classification for boys basketball started in 2007, the Cardinals have qualified for the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II tournament four times, including 2010 as the BIIF champion.
The two other times they didn’t make it they fell a step short, losing in the BIIF semifinals. Last season was supposed to be their year. They had five senior starters — Sebi Ohara-Saft, Thomas Fairman, Christian Kaui, Isaac Pacheco and Cody Andrade — but lost to Hawaii Prep, the eventual league champ in the semis, 43-42.
Only 5-foot-10 junior forward Ben Ulmann and 5-7 sophomore forward Koa Galves are returning players, putting the program’s existence in jeopardy until a recruiting pitch produced a roster of nine, with no seniors.
“It means a lot to have a team,” Ulmann said. “St. Joe has always had a basketball team and we wanted a team to continue that tradition. I persuaded my brother (freshman Jonathan Ulmann) to play, and we asked around if the freshmen were going to play.”
The other freshmen are John Lindenau, Cole DeSilva and Kaena Nahoopi‘i, the latter two are penciled in to start along with the two returnees. The younger Ulmann and junior Edgar Barclay are battling for the other starting job.
Besides youth, the roster is filled with inexperience. Most of the players are foreign to the game or played in Parks and Recreation leagues. Preston Long, a junior, and Derrick Crelencia, a sophomore, fill out the bench.
The bar — once set so high to compete for the BIIF championship — has been lowered.
“We’ll try to win, but we don’t expect to win too many games,” Ulmann said. “I like that we’re young. Right now, we have a lot to learn, but we’re pretty smart and pick up things pretty fast.
“Last year was my first time on the varsity. I didn’t play too much, but I practiced over the summer and worked on everything with my friends. We can’t get discouraged. We have to make sure we know the goal at hand and that’s to build for the future. We want to get better and keep working hard.”
In its tourney opening game, St. Joe enters the lion’s den, taking on Kohala, the BIIF runner-up and another small school but long on athletic talent and a rich tradition in Division II. The Cowboys have also been to states four times, including three years in a row as the BIIF champ from 2007 to ’09.
“We’ll try to be as competitive as possible and try to be the same program,” St. Joe co-coach Mike Scanlan said. “But we don’t have the skills right now. We have to stay positive throughout the season and understand it’s a learning experience.
“The kids are tough-minded. They fought to keep the program. There’s a lot of school pride. They didn’t want to let the school down. Only Ben has actually played. Only a few have P&R experience. Hopefully next year, we’ll be more competitive.”
St. Joe co-coach Ron Masulit was thinking the same thing.
“On the bright side, we have no seniors,” he said. “Hopefully, next season we can be a playoff contender. We’re very inexperienced to say the least. Ben will be our go-to, all-around player due to his experience and skill set. He’ll pretty much do everything, play small or big and wherever we need to plug him in. I like his attitude. He’s willing to learn and work hard.
“I had him two years ago and he’s developed a great deal over that two-year span. He’s developed into a pretty good ball-handler and his outside shot extends to the 3-point line. He can attack the basket and plays good defense on and off the ball. He’s also a terrific rebounder.”
St. Joe will stick to the Princeton offense, installed by Scanlan’s dad and former coach Harry Scanlan-Leite, who died in June 2011. The offense involves movement, passing and disciplined teamwork — a good fit for the young Cards, as long as they don’t pick up their dribble too early under pressure.
Defensively, they’ll continue to play man with a lot of help-side assistance and a 2-3 zone to deny driving lanes.
Tactics aside, it’s teamwork that will make the biggest difference for the Cardinals, who despite a lot of new faces will rely on the same old philosophy.
“When we had Sebi and Thomas last year, we molded everybody around them,” Masulit said. “Then things fell into place. Now, we have to try to get everybody up to speed. In the beginning, it may look ugly.
“But we’ve seen it turn around in the past. We’re looking to grow as a team. It’ll take time and hopefully the kids will get it and look like the championship teams from the past.”