By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Waiakea’s guard-heavy roster of youth and potential take another step forward in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation boys basketball season filled with promise.
Last season, the Warriors relied on junior Owen Sandstrom and a host of sophomores — Lucas St. George, Maikai Gahan, Dillon Rellez and Bryson Ita — to push their way into the first round of the BIIF Division I tournament.
Waiakea fell to Kealakehe 54-44, and finished its season with a 5-8 record, watching with interest as Kamehameha, Hilo, Konawaena and Kealakehe not only competed in the Final Four but showed a gap of separation; Hilo ousted Keaau 68-37 in the other first-round game.
“We’re a young team and have promising players who are working hard to get to the level of the other schools,” Waiakea co-coach Henry Miranda said. “We’re trying to play aggressive man defense. Everybody is trying to help each other. We’re trying to blend two coaches (Eric Yoshimura is the other co-coach) together and do what’s best for the kids.
“We’re not that big. We’ve got a lot of players who are guards. We’ve got four guards who are 5-3 or 5-4 at the most. We have to control the boards, make good decisions and not make turnovers. We have to run our stuff on offense until the defense breaks down. We’ve got to be patient.”
Yoshimura was Pahoa’s coach when the Daggers won the Division II state championship in 2010, and the school’s first BIIF title the following season.
Like Miranda, Yoshimura’s early focus is on teamwork, especially on defense. He’ll get a good look at how the height-challenged Warriors — St. George is 6-foot-3 and Sandstrom is 6-1 and everyone else is much shorter — guard the perimeter, protect the rim and rebound through four preseason games.
The Warriors open play in the Keaau-Waiakea Classic tonight against Hawaii Prep, the BIIF division II champion, which suffered significant losses, losing starters Tyler Van Kirk, Dakota Berman and Keanu Yamamoto.
“Henry and I preach team play and the team concept,” Yoshimura said. “Every player does have a role. It’s a team game and one player can’t do it all alone. You need cooperation and contribution from the others to be successful. As coaches, it’s our job to get them to play as a team.”
St. George and Sandstrom spent part of the offseason playing in mainland tournaments with club teams, facing tough competition and growing from the experience. St. George competed with the Iolani Rain, an AAU club team from Oahu, which played in San Diego and Las Vegas. Sandstrom played with the Kona Stingrays in the same Las Vegas tourney, but in a different age division.
“We won the Las Vegas tourney. That was pretty cool,” St. George said. “The competition was solid. At San Diego, everybody could handle the ball. I worked on my ball-handling and focused on strong post moves and rebounding.
“Everyone on our team can shoot the 3-point shot. None of us has a bad shot. We just have to stay on the same page. When you play as a team, you can feel it. It’s a natural vibe. It feels great and that’s how you win games.”
Like St. George, Sandstrom also spent his summer working out, lifting weights and playing ball.
“I saw good athletes at the tourney,” he said. “I think I’ve improved as a player. I learned that you have to rely on your smarts and not just your athleticism.
“Our team has diversity. We’ve got post players, a lot of guards and competition at every position. We have to play good defense and be competitive every night.”
St. George and Ita earned All-BIIF honorable mention last season. Miranda is hoping each inspires the Warriors in their own way.
“Lucas is young and can be the heart of the team. We want him to work as hard as he can at practice and be a team leader,” Miranda said. “Everybody looks to Lucas. When he doesn’t shoot out of his range and gets closer to the basket, he can be dominating inside.
“Bryson is an excellent dribbler. He gives us good defense and he’s a top on-ball defender. He was voted captain of the team. We’re looking for good leadership from Bryson.”
Miranda coached Waiakea during the summer league, so he has a good feel about how the league stacks up. And juicy BIIF matchups — just preseason games now but nice scouting intel for later — are available at the tourney.
If Waiakea defeats HPA, the Warriors will likely rematch against Kealakehe, which plays inexperienced St. Joseph in another first-round game. If Hilo and Waiakea win their first two games, they would meet Friday for the Blue bracket title.
Kamehameha is the defending BIIF champion. But the runner-up Vikings return much of last season’s firepower.
“In the summer league a lot of the schools were at the same level as us,” Miranda said. “Hilo is a notch above us. Hopefully, we can meet them in this tournament. We look forward to playing them and everyone else.”
Game 1: Keaau 2 vs. Kohala, 3 p.m.
G2: Konawaena vs. Pahoa, 4:30 p.m.
G3: Kalani vs. Kamehameha-Hawaii, 6 p.m.
G4: Keaau vs. Ka‘u, 7:30 p.m.
G5: Loser G1 vs. Loser G2, 3 p.m.
G6: L-G3 vs. L-G4, 4:30 p.m.
G7: Winner G1 vs. Winner G2, 6 p.m.
G8: W-G3 vs. W-G4, 7:30 p.m.
G9: L-G5 (Blue) vs. L-G6, 3 p.m.
G10: W-G5 vs. W-G6, 4:30 p.m.
G11: L-G8 vs. LG7, 6 p.m.
G12: W-G8 vs. W-G7, 7:30 p.m.
G1: Waiakea 2 vs. Honokaa, 3 p.m.
G2: St. Joseph vs. Kealakehe, 4:30 p.m.
G3: Hilo vs. Kalaheo, 6 p.m.
G4: Waiakea vs. Hawaii Prep, 7:30 p.m.
G5: L-G2 vs. L-G4, 4:30 p.m.
G6: L-G1 vs. L-G3, 3 p.m.
G7: W-G1 vs. W-G3, 6 p.m.
G8: W-G2 vs. W-G4, 7:30 p.m.
G9: L-G5 vs. L-G6, p.m.
G10: W-G5 vs. W-G6, 4:30 p.m.
G11: L-G8 vs. L-G7, 6 p.m.
G12: W-G8 vs. W-G7, 7:30 p.m.
G13: Red 8 vs. Blue 8, 10 a.m.
G14: Red 7 vs. Blue 7, 11:30 a.m.
G15: Red 6 vs. Blue 6, 1 p.m.
G16: Red 5 vs. Blue 5, 3 p.m.
G17: Red 4 vs. Blue 4, 3 p.m.
G18: Red 3 vs. Blue 3, 4:30 p.m.
G19: Red 2 vs. Blue 2, 6 p.m.
G20: Red 1 vs. Blue 1, 7:30 p.m.