By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Jordan Kealoha is a facilitator by trade and a scorer at heart.
“I prefer point guard,” she said. “I like pushing the tempo.”
Kealoha then flashed a wide smile, adding, “But I love shooting, too.”
The junior certainly has come to the right place. The University of Hawaii at Hilo women’s basketball team could use a little of each. The new-look Vulcans open their season with home games against Alaska-Fairbanks at 5 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Kealoha was one of eight recruits signed by coach David Kaneshiro, who for the most part went to junior colleges to find reinforcements after losing eight seniors. One exception was Kealoha. The Mid-Pacific (Oahu) graduate played two seasons at Sacramento State before deciding to return home to the islands to be closer to family.
Kaneshiro noted that Kealoha’s Division I pedigree was noticeable in preseason practice. The differences have less to do with makes or misses and more to do with Kealoha’s ability to handle the day-to-day grind.
“She’s brought a lot of leadership, hard work and maturity,” Kaneshiro said. “Division II is about life and balance. Division I has that, too, but it’s more skewed. She’s got mental toughness. She’s not a real vocal leader, but she certainly is leading by example.”
Kealoha is listed at 5 feet, 3 inches, which is as tall as a tree compared to the quick, yet diminutive guards that UHH featured last season.
While she may go up against bigger point guards, Kaneshiro said Kealoha can more than make up for it with her athleticism as well as her ability to defend and shoot.
“We’re working just as hard (here) as I did at Sacramento State,” she said. “Honestly, the talent level here is the same. Playing is playing, it’s what you make of it.”
The team’s lone returning starter and senior is Kamie Imai, a versatile player who led UHH in scoring, rebounding and assists last season. Kaneshiro envisions her role as being much the same as last year on offense.
The Vulcans got bigger down low with the additions of 5-10 center McKenzie Mangino and forwards Danielle Kooyman (6-0) and Hayley Reynolds (5-11), and the added height will allow Imai to play more on the perimeter defensively.
In her first season back in Hilo, the 5-9 Imai, a Waiakea graduate who formerly played at Division I Utah State, led the Vulcans to a 13-11 record and a trip to the Pacific West Conference tournament.
“She’s more consistent and talking more, and we need her to,” Kaneshiro said. “It’s her last go-around, and she’s working as if she has a lot invested. Let’s make it a good year.”
Kaneshiro likes the shooting ability of all three of his starting guards, including juniors Whitney Edens and CC Rode.
Imai is perhaps at her best when she’s a facilitator, so the Vulcans could develop into a team that has a different leading scorer each game.
“That’s a good thing,” Edens said. “You have a team that doesn’t just have one main person. Jordan will have a good night, and the next night Kamie will.
“You can’t just focus on one person. Everyone has their own strength. I think that’s what makes us really dangerous.”
The only true freshman is Alexa Jacobs, a point guard who will at times play with Kealoha.
The Nanooks enter 3-0 and are coming off easy wins against BYU-Hawaii on Friday and Chaminade on Sunday. The Vuls were picked to finish seventh in the preseason PacWest poll.
“Tomorrow night (tonight) will be a steppingstone,” Rode said. “Then we’ll figure out where we’re at and where we need to be.”