A lesson learned for Kohala junior guard Kealen Figueroa was that dedication to working hard all the time produces the best surprises.
He provided an offensive boost with averages of 13 points and 5 assists per game, but he also brought a defensive presence and leadership role that were equally valuable on the basketball court.
The 5-foot-8 point guard with the nonstop motor sparked the Cowboys to the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II championship, the school’s first since 2009, the ending of a title threepeat.
Kohala wasn’t supposed to win the BIIF title, at least according to everyone outside of Kapaau. Hawaii Prep, with its stacked deck of talented foreign students, was pegged to threepeat.
But a funny thing happened down the stretch, Figueroa and the Cowboys started playing their best ball and knocked off Pahoa in the BIIF semifinals and HPA 67-53 in the championship.
Figueroa was named the BIIF Player of the Year in Division II by the league’s coaches, getting recognized as the most valuable player on the best team.
“He had a big drive,” Kohala coach Don Fernandez said. “It was his hustle effect, hitting the floor, giving that extra effort. That was the key where everybody thought he was our MVP. His biggest strength is that he’s pedal to the metal all the time. He plays all out the whole game.
“He’s always fiery. That’s the only way he knows. A lot of fire, that’s him. There’s no subtleness to him.”
Kohala’s junior class of five were all recognized. Mikala Jordan, who scored 19 points against HPA in the BIIF championship, made the first team while Hana Caravalho, Justin Agbayani and Shawn Ray Ramos received honorable mention.
“I know Kealen was recognized, but I feel like all our players could have been MVP,” Fernandez said. “All the players were a big part of our game and they complemented each other. Everybody didn’t expect us to win BIIFs. The players have really grown since their sophomore year.
“Kealen would try to get the ball to our shooters, penetrate and kick it to the shooters. He helped a lot with our press and was a big part of our transition, getting a lot of steals. He was relentless on the ball.”
HPA seniors Kalan Camero and David Ovabagbedia, a 6-foot-6 forward from Nigeria, and Pahoa junior guard Tolby Saito round out the first team.
Like Kohala, BIIF runner-up Ka Makani had their starting lineup recognized. Junior guard Justas Gecas and 6-7 senior forward Evaldas Vegertas, both from Lithuania, were honorable mention as was senior guard Kellen Gillins.
HPA beat Kalani 42-33 for the title at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II state championships. Kohala placed fourth, losing to Kalani in the semifinals 70-59 and to Seabury Hall 57-45 in the third-place game.
Any sport with seven or more teams will have both a first and second All-BIIF team. Division II consisted of Kohala, HPA, Honokaa, Pahoa, Ka‘u and St. Joseph.
Last season as a sophomore, Figueroa was a second-team pick on the West Division team while Camero was honorable mention. Saito was honorable mention on the East Division team.
The player of the year honor was a curveball to Figueroa, who scored 25 points in Kohala’s 56-32 win over Pahoa in the BIIF semifinals. He’s back to playing baseball for the Cowboys, after competing as a freshman and sitting out last year.
“I’m surprised. I didn’t expect to win it as a junior,” he said. “It feels good. All the hard work from the coaches, the offseason coaches and from my dad, who all pushed me, paid off. It’s very special to me because Brandon Bautista won player of the year (2007, ‘08, ‘09). I’ve looked up to him. It never occurred to me that I would do what he did.
“When he was a senior, I was in my seventh grade year and I used to go to all the Kohala games and go over to his house and talk story about basketball and life. He would tell me that you have to give 100 percent in everything you do. If you do work hard, you will go places in life.”
Bautista is on scholarship at Oregon Tech, an NAIA school. The junior guard was named to the all-conference first team. Figueroa, who has a 3.2 grade-point average, also wants to play college ball and become a physical education teacher.
His dad is Alfred Figueroa, a handyman, and his mom is Traci Figueroa, who owns Figs Mix Plate. Her restaurant got a 94 percent recommendation rating and all high marks in categories of food, service, value and atmosphere from tripadvisor.com.
Besides Kohala coach Fernandez, Figueroa credited Cowboys assistant and junior varsity coach Kihei Kapeliela and Hoops Dream coach Randy Apele for helping his game, especially in the Hilo summer league.
“I think my strength was bringing the team fire, to just get out there and let’s go. Pick everybody up,” Figueroa said. “That drive comes from the heart. Everything comes from the heart. That’s what you have to do in life, too. Everything has to come from the heart.”
More than anything, Figueroa is a Kohala Cowboy at heart. He grew up playing ball with Agbayani, Ramos, Caravalho and Jordan.
“Justin, Shawn, Hana and me played together since the first grade. Mikala came into the picture in the second grade then he went to Honokaa and came back his sophomore year,” Figueroa said. “It’s a good thing that they were all recognized. They all work hard, too. We’re all in the same class and next year we’ll be seniors and are coming back. That’s pretty special.
“When we were freshmen our ultimate goal was to go to states and win states. We have a really good chance next year. We know we can compete up there. If we get that chance again, we want to make it happen.”