By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
KAILUA-KONA – Nobody on the Hilo High girls basketball team had been born the last time the Vikings went to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament – save for Amber Vaughn, and she was just two weeks old.
But the Vikings read their history books, and they knew it was high time they put the school’s 17-year drought to rest.
“Yeah, we kind of went over it (in practice),” junior Aliyah Pana said, “and we’re really proud that we finally ended it.”
Hilo did so with ruthless efficiency Friday night in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation semifinals, overwhelming Kealakehe 81-17 behind freshman Alexis Pana’s game-high 19 points.
Regardless of how the Vikings (11-0) did in Saturday night’s final against Konawaena – and Alexis Pana was positively giddy with anticipation to face the powerful Wildcats in game that ended after the Tribune-Herald’s deadline – Hilo will make its first state trip since 1996. The tournament starts Tuesday on Oahu.
The journey actually dates back to when coach Ben Pana took over four years ago.
“We had some down years,” Ben Pana said. “This is the year that I’d been targeting, the caliber of players that I would have coming up through the age group level. A lot of my girls travel with me over the last three years.”
His daughters and their teammates’ development through Keaukaha Basketball Club were central to the plan.
Alexis Pana started playing when she was 6, and she wasn’t alone.
“We’ve all been playing together a long time,” she said of a group that includes her sister, juniors Vaughn, Alyssa Perreira, Kaily Harris and Cierra Kelii, sophomore Raevyn Kaupu and freshmen Shalyn Guthier and Sharlei Graham-Bernisto.
“We discussed how to get (to states), a roadmap.”
The past two seasons, the Vikings had to rely on Aliyah Pana to do a little bit of everything: ball-handling, rebounding, playing the post, guarding the opposition’s best player.
“We depended on Aliyah a lot,” Ben Pana said.
It took a toll on her, but the upstart freshmen class changed all that.
“Now that her sister is on board, she seems a more confident and comfortable player,” the coach said. “Just knowing that Alexis, Shalyn and Sharlei, they’re good ball-handlers, take away half of her responsibilities.”
Said Aliyah Pana: “Definitely less pressure this year, because now we have the freshmen and we’ve played with each other for a long time, during the offseason. We had a better bond together.”
And they did so while forcing tempo with an aggressive man defense that Ben Pana learned under Larry Manliguis while playing for the Vikings from 1988-91. The joke around he and some Hilo alumni is that they simply know no other way.
“(Man defense) was ingrained in us,” Ben Pana said. “(Coach Manliguis) told us the only time we’d play zone was when the moon turns blue.”
Girls state tournament appearances came once in a blue moon, too, at least until Pana and daughters came to reinvigorate the program.
It’s best finish on Oahu was in 1990, when the Vikings beat Farrington to finish third.
And with no seniors and only one upperclassmen starter, Aliyah Pana, the Vikings’ best days still could be ahead of them.
“I feel like we’ve come really far, compared to the times before,” Aliyah Pana said. “We just rebuilt and improved every year.
“I think we’re going to keep improving. We have improved from the beginning of the season, we have to just keep improving, next year, preseason, postseason.”
For stories on Saturday’s Division I final and the Division II final between Kamehameha and Honokaa, visit www.hawaiitribune-herald.com.