By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
Kealakehe’s Deion Utrera has been a driving force through the previous three seasons and would like to finish his senior year on a winning note.
The quick 5-foot-6 point guard has started since his freshman season and been one of the Waveriders’ top scorers and defenders, capable of turning a close game into a Kealakehe victory with his deadly outside shot or a steal to protect a lead.
During a game last season at Honokaa, Utrera exploded for a career-high 42 points as the Waveriders fought past the Dragons in a close contest. That game illustrated Utrera’s offensive skills with him hitting eight 3-pointers in an eye-popping performance.
But Utrera brings so much more to the court for Kealakehe coach Sam Kekuaokalani.
“We’re looking at Deion taking more of a leadership role for us,” the Waveriders coach said. “He does so many things for the team — score, play defense, share the ball and provide a spark when we need it. I think Deion will have a great year and we need him to be our team leader.”
Earlier this month in the Waiakea/Keaau Classic, Hawaii Preparatory Academy had dominated the Waveriders through the first three quarters, leading 30-16. Up until that point, Utrera had run the offense and seldom looked for his shot. But in the final period, the senior guard took over and led a rally that saw Kealakehe pull within 36-28 on a Utrera 3-pointer with 4:52 left.
The Ka Makani, the defending Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II champions, responded with a strong finish, led by 6-4 senior Jovan Crnic, and pulled away to a 56-37 win. But it took Crnic’s 27-point effort — 12 in the fourth quarter — and help from his teammates to fight off Utrera & Co.
Utrera finished with 19 points and was almost unstoppable in the final period when he took charge for the Waveriders.
Junior Malu Akiona, a 6-5 center, followed Utrera with eight points. Kekuaokalani will need both talented players to play vital roles this season if the Waveriders hope to challenge in the BIIF’s D-I title race.
“We lost eight seniors from last year and added four football players to the roster this year,” the Kealakehe coach said. “The football players are athletic and once they learn our system, they should help a lot.
“We’re still working on building our team chemistry and getting everyone involved. Deion will help a lot with his leadership. Malu is a big addition and he should really help us.”
Utrera is one of six seniors on the Waveriders’ roster this season. The others include Justin Freddy, Kainalu Lozano, John Alokoa, Joby Wills and JC Nedlic.
Akiona is one of four juniors. The others are Kalani Lewi, Tyler La Salle and Keanu Tifas. Sophomore Marc Grande rounds out the 11-man squad. Assistant coaches include Sonny Guerra, Boy Dias and Mel Utrera.
Kekuaokalani points to rival Konawaena as the team to beat in D-I this year, with Hilo and Waiakea the top challengers.
“Kona has been playing together for years, they’re the team to beat,” the coach said. “and Hilo and Waiakea may have enough talent to challenge.”