By JOE FERRARO
They thrived with suffocating on-the-ball pressure, creating easy offense off their defense and winning three state titles in the past four years.
With the Konawaena Wildcats graduating the two main cogs from those championship teams — current Washington State freshmen Lia Galdeira and Dawnyelle Awa — and three other seniors, Bobbie Awa said she might mix in some zone defense into her rebuilding team’s game plan.
However, the Konawaena girls basketball coach said the Wildcats will continue to play the only way they’ve known how in the past 15 years: at a face pace.
Konawaena’s annual preseason round-robin tournament begins today and runs through Saturday at Onizuka Gymnasium.
“You might see more zone defenses (this year),’’ Awa said. “But we still like to run and gun. We just have to put the girls in the right positions to be successful.”
The Wildcats will open the tournament at 8 p.m. today against Interscholastic League of Honolulu power Punahou. The teams have combined to win nine state titles in the past 10 years. Then at 7:30 p.m. the next day, Konawaena will play 2010 Division I state champion Lahainaluna, providing a thin Wildcats team two stiff tests.
Konawaena comes into its tourney having gone 2-1 at a Maui preseason tournament last week. The Wildcats beat Valley Isle team King Kekaulike and state runner-up Iolani before losing to Mililani of the Oahu Interscholastic Association in the championship game.
In that tournament, Konawaena senior Hoku Liftee, a versatile guard, suffered an abdominal injury that Awa said might keep her out for two weeks.
Awa sees the injury as just one item on a list of hurdles that have kept the Wildcats from jelling as a team over the past few weeks.
Senior guard Melissa Simon, who hit some timely 3-pointers in the postseason for the Wildcats last season, had experienced some discomfort in her hand, which stemmed from the recent fall bowling season. Also, senior guard Taylor Awa missed two weeks of practice time because of driver’s education responsibilities.
Bobbie Awa said eight players will dress for today’s game against Punahou.
“It’s a little tough right now, but we have time before the season starts,’’ the Konawaena coach said.
That doesn’t mean the Wildcats’ cupboard is bare.
Konawaena also returns 5-foot-10 senior forward Courtney Kaupu, one of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation’s best post players.
Bobbie Awa said Kaupu and Liftee have assumed the leadership roles on the team after being role players last season.
“Courtney and Hoku are stepping up and helping the younger players come around,’’ Awa said.
Two freshmen will join Kaupu, Liftee and Simon in the starting lineup.
Awa said the Wildcats do not have a “go-to player,’’ but she sees the traits of a dependable scoring threat in Shanelle Molina, a 5-6 freshman who can play both guard positions.
“She’s got a scoring mentality, and she’s a good on-the-ball defender,’’ Awa said. “She’s still young, and we have to get her to be more aggressive off the ball so she can create steals.”
Awa calls Ihi Victor, a 5-8 freshman, a strong rebounder who “can shoot the ball from the outside and put the ball on floor but needs consistency.’’
Today, the Wildcats will face a Punahou team that did not play in last year’s Division I state tournament but one Awa says has “something to prove.”
Like Konawaena, Lahainaluna, a Division I state semifinalist last season, features plenty of youth but more depth than the Wildcats, according to Awa.
“Lahaina is very scrappy,’’ Awa said. “They full-court press, and they’re a little young, but they’re definitely taller than we are.”
On Saturday, Awa will coach against one of her former players — ex-University of Hawaii at Hilo standout Hina Kimitete — when the Wildcats take on OIA school Kalani.
Kimitete helped Konawaena win its first state title in 2004.
“She knew the tournament was competitive, and she wanted to come down for it,’’ Awa said.
Honokaa vs. Lahainaluna, 3:30 p.m.
Kam-HI vs. Kalani, 5 p.m.
Punahou vs. Konawaena, 8 p.m.
HPA vs. Konawaena, 6:30 p.m.