By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Far from a finished product in coach Daphne Honma’s eyes, Honokaa is still good enough to have beaten everyone, except the league’s two best teams: Konawaena and Hilo.
The Dragons don’t have to worry about those two Big Island Interscholastic Federation girls basketball Division I powers anymore. It’s now the critical portion of the season with the four-team Division II playoffs. at 3 p.m. today, No. 1 seed Honokaa (9-2) takes on No. 4 Hawaii Prep (5-6) at Keaau High’s gym.
As the BIIF regular-season champion, the Dragons earlier clinched the first of the league’s three berths to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state tournament.
In the following game at 4:30 p.m. today, No. 2 Kamehameha (8-3) battles No. 3 Kohala (6-5). The Warriors, hoping to add to their legacy, are the six-time defending BIIF champions and two-time defending state champs.
Last season, Honokaa reached states for the third consecutive season, and was the state runner-up. A ton of valuable experience was gained, always a good thing with returning players. Even better, the depth got a boost with the eligibility of HPA transfers Chancis and Eliyah Fernandez, the sisters who stretch the offense.
Eliyah Fernandez, a 5-foot-9 junior forward, is a sturdy presence in the post and a complement to 5-9 senior forward Hunter Liftee, who tallied 16 points in a 55-46 loss to Kamehameha in the Division II state championship. Chancis Fernandez, a 5-6 senior guard, is a versatile weapon, capable of scoring layups or moving her game inside.
“Chancis is a great athlete. She and her sister adjusted really well. Both came in not knowing how the chemistry would be,” Honma said. “It’s been really good. They came in together and fit right in. Chancis is a hard worker. Even at practice, she goes really hard and does a lot of the little things. She’s a natural leader and the kids look up to her. She leads by example. If she says something, then she’s doing it.
“I like the fact that she’s quick and has got some speed. She can jump and is learning to play all five positions. She can run the 1 (point guard), play center sometimes. She’s versatile and that makes her very valuable. Eliyah’s a strong kid. We’re trying to work with her on getting post moves and better shots under the basket.”
It’s not just Liftee and the Fernandez sisters who are lighting a fire for the Dragons, who defeated Kamehameha 42-35 at home during the regular season.
“We’ve gotten solid play from a bunch of kids, besides (point guard) Shayla Ignacio, Hunter and the Fernandez girls, Shemika Frazier had a good game against Hilo,” Honma said. “Jasmine Castro has been playing pretty solid. Kayla Requelman has had her moments. Taylor Souza, when she’s gone in there we’ve gotten good production out of her. Shereena Bird has given us good defense and has taken care of the ball.
“We’ve had solid play from the kids and everybody has contributed in their own way. That’s the makeup of the team. We don’t have one dominant player who stands out. Different people have stepped up in games. We try to play to our strength and take advantage of the other team’s weakness while not exposing ours at the same time. We’re starting to play within ourselves and more under control.”
Still, Honma believes there’s room for improvement everywhere, from feeding entry passes into the post to cutting down on turnovers and understanding the concept of the inside-outside offense.
“I don’t want them to think if they pass it’s never coming back out,” she said. “It’s important to get the ball inside to create openings for everybody else. It’s part of the challenge to have them understand all those kinds of things, like why to kick the ball inside, and why they have to move after passing the ball.
“We’re trying to get them to understand about timing. They’re only open a little bit (when a player cuts to the basket). That window is very short and you have to get them the ball at that time. They’re starting to come around and we’ve made big gains, but still have a long way to go.”
At least there are no worries about team chemistry. In fact, despite the loss of sophomore point guard Kizzah Maltezo (knee), Honokaa’s harmony is better than ever. Maltezo has become an inspirational leader.
“She’s our biggest cheerleader. Her job every day before practice is to come up with the quote of the day,” Honma said. “She’s found some really good ones. It relates to the needs of the team at that time. It’s about dedication and commitment and she’s taken that job to heart. The kids look forward to the quote of the day and how it relates to the team. I told her, ‘You need to give something more than the quote, talk about how it relates to the team.’
“The other kids are giving their input as well. It’s something really positive for the team. The kids miss her on the court, but they still feel her presence. It’s a negative thing for us, but a positive for us as well. What I really enjoy about the team is that the kids are working hard for each other. We’ve got good team chemistry. If they don’t like each other, then they’re fooling us.”
Honma’s philosophy is a simple drill sergeant approach: push everyone to be better, so hopefully one day they will see the big picture.
“We enjoy coaching them,” said Honma, assisted by Cheyenne Meyer, Aaron Tanimoto, Alan Kaohimaunu, Myra Iwamoto and Lauwae Ablao. “We put demands on them to be dedicated, committed and work hard and to bring that attitude to games and practice every single day. We have a high-level of expectations and hold them accountable for it. But we want to make sure they understand why we have high standards and hold them accountable.
“We explain to them we’re not just teaching basketball, but life lessons. We want them to become successful outside of basketball as well. We try to stress almost daily whatever we’re doing on the basketball court transfers to every day life. I think the more they hear that the better the buy-in. When that all sinks in, we see a better product on the basketball court as well.”