By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
While many people relax and reflect on their blessings on Thanksgiving day, Hilo High coach Ben Pana sets aside this special time for his ohana — his own family as well as his talented girls basketball team — to do what they do almost 365 days out of the year.
In Pana’s busy schedule, no matter the holiday, family and basketball go hand-in-hand.
So it’s not surprising that the Vikings play Waiakea at noon today in the first round of the Hilo High girls preseason tournament at Kawananakoa Gym. That means his Vikings will miss out on the turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes for lunch, but they’ll certainly be ready for all the good stuff plus pumpkin pie by dinner time.
“I’m really blessed with my family and extended family — the basketball girls,” Pana said. “Working with these girls year-round is a special thing. I’ve never been around a group of girls that are so committed to the team and each other.
“Over the summer, we worked out six days a week and they were bugging me to get into the gym on the seventh day. They lifted weights, did speed training, and worked in the gym on their basketball skills. It’s all to prepare them to reach their ultimate goal — to win a state championship.”
Last year, the young Vikings, with no seniors, finished runner-up to perennial Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I champion Konawaena and went onto place third in the state D-I tournament on Oahu.
“This year, we want to improve upon what we did last year,” Pana said. “We have some baby steps to prepare along the way, and some other goals, but everyone is on the same page about our ultimate goal. It’s the same ultimate goal as every other school in the state — to win the state title.
“We want to get to that state championship game and then give our best effort. If we can do that, win or lose, I’ll be satisfied.”
Pana knows what it feels like to be a state champion. In 1991, the sharpshooting senior guard helped lead Hilo High to the state boys championship in Honolulu. His daughters, Aliyah, a 5-foot-8 senior, and Alexis, a 5-9 sophomore, are standout players on this year’s Lady Vikings.
“I’d like for my daughters and all the girls on our team to feel what it’s like to be a state champion,” the elder Pana said. “It’s a special feeling and lets you know all the hard work that you and your teammates did pays off.”
In addition to the productive Pana sisters, Hilo has quality starters and depth. The Panas are joined in the starting lineup by much-improved junior Chailey Cabalis and steady sophomores Sharlei Graham-Bernisto and Shalyn Guthier. Expected to contribute key minutes off the bench are seniors Amber Vaughn, Kaily Harris, Alyssa Perreira and Keala Wilbur-Gabriel, junior Raveyn Kaupu and sophomore Cierra Kelii.
Graham-Bernisto, a 5-foot point guard, is a vital cog in Hilo’s smothering pressure defense.
“Sharlei is our spark plug,” coach Pana said. “She has a champion’s heart and is relentless. She does all the little things well, stuff you might not always see on the stat sheet or in the newspaper. But she has a tremendous desire to compete and her hustling style is contagious for her teammates.”
On offense, the hummingbird-quick Graham-Bernisto orchestrates the half-court sets and pushes the ball in transition. She has added confidence on her pull-up jumpshot and often scores off the break, using her speed to beat opponents down the floor.
On defense, Graham-Bernisto is a pit bull, applying ball pressure in full and half-court situations. If there’s a loose ball on the court, she’s usually the player on top of the play, picking up an opponent’s turnover and helping manufacture easy Viking points off the defense.
“Sharlei earns respect just by the way she plays,” Pana said. “She’s matured a lot from last year. She’s physically stronger, quicker, and her mental approach to the game has been fantastic.
“She’s not very tall but she’s still our strongest player pound-for-pound. In the weight room she has squatted 285 pounds for three reps — that’s almost three times her weight. She’s also a great leader, right behind Aliyah on our team in that area.”
Graham-Bernisto, who is in her second year in Hilo High’s ROTC program as well being as grade-A student, understands her role on the team.
“The main thing for me is defense,” Graham-Bernisto said. “I try to put on as much pressure as I can on my opponent and hopefully get everyone else on our team pumped up to play harder. Because I’m the shortest on the team, I have to work extra hard.”
Graham-Bernisto believes the weight lifting has helped her and her teammates.
“We started lifting weights with Coach Ben in the eight grade,” she said. “We’re all much stronger now physically, have better balance, and are more confident in ourselves. All the conditioning we do is to help us reach our ultimate goals.
“I’d really like to win BIIFs and states this year for our seniors. It would be a great way for them to go out. We all would like to win, but it would be especially good for the seniors who have led the way.”
Asked how it feels to be the strongest player on the team, she said with a big smile: “It’s cool — I’m the shortest and the strongest.”
Graham-Bernisto is also preparing for her future — working hard in the classroom, in basketball and in ROTC.
“My goal is to go to college and hopefully play basketball and get a really good education,” she said. “ROTC helps me with leadership skills and discipline, and it carries over into everything else in life. If I’m not able to get a basketball scholarship for college, I may go into the military to help pay for my education and try to make a better life for me.”
Pana is assisted this year by Aaron Kaleo, Dave Baldwin (conditioning), Emma Pedro (JV head coach) and Lindsey Iyo.
Editor’s note: This is another installment in a continuing series of BIIF girls basketball previews.
Next up: Kohala, Friday.
At Kawananakoa Gym
Ka’u vs. Pahoa, 10:30 a.m.
Waiakea vs. Hilo, noon
Kamehameha-Hawaii vs. Iolani, 1:30 p.m.
Iolani vs. Waiakea, 3:30 p.m.
Kamehameha-Hawaii vs. Ka’u, 5 p.m.
Hilo vs. Pahoa, 6:30 p.m.
Waiakea vs. Ka’u, 1:30 p.m.
Kamehameha-Hawaii vs. Pahoa, 3 p.m.
Hilo vs. Iolani, 4:30 p.m.