Cowboys made history in 2020 with first state basketball championship

CJ Caraang | SL

For the Kohala boys basketball team and its coach, Kihei Kapeliela, one year ago might as well be a lifetime ago.

It was a year ago — Feb. 21, 2020 — that the Cowboys etched their names into the record books with the very first basketball state championship in program history.

Kohala's 51-48 win over Roosevelt in the title game of the Snapple/HHSAA Division II Boys Basketball State Championships at the Stan Sheriff Center served as its crowning moment in a most memorable season.

"Year-in and year-out we see how hard the boys work and we got close so much times," said Kapeliela, who graduated from Kohala in 1995 and spent a dozen years as an assistant to former coach Don Fernandez before taking over the team prior to the 2019-2020 season.

Kapeliela is quick to express his appreciation for Fernandez and another former Cowboys' coach in James Marquez.

"They say it's different, but it's the same. We still carry on the same discipline and work ethic and I just try to carry on the same beliefs in how we play and playing the right way and all that kind of stuff, so big thanks to those two especially, Kapeliela said. "They taught me to preach defense and learning from them all those years, it's just a different person, but it's the same game plan: defense will win championships."

Defense didn't just win Kapeliela's squad a championship, it won them a bunch of games, too.

Kohala went 12-2 in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation and 19-3 overall.

Although the Cowboys came up short to Hawaii Prep in the race for the league's D2 title, they beat every other team in the BIIF — including all of the D1 teams.

"Our thing the whole season was, we don't think ‘one game at a time,' we take it ‘one quarter at a time,' and no matter what happens in the first quarter or the second quarter, it's a new game and we were out to win every quarter. We had a lot of close games that came down to a single possession and a basket at the end, or a a stop at the end, but there was never a time that we were in doubt that we would win," Kapeliela said.

Over the course of the season, Kohala had seven games decided by seven-or-fewer points. It won all seven of those games.

"We had a lot of close games, games we were down a couple possessions in the last minute and we made stops. We seemed to always find a way and we always depend on our defense to win the game for us; that's the whole model, is our defense," Kapeliela said.

Back in November of 2019 — a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday — Kohala lost to Hilo, 65-55, in a preseason game at Waiakea. Just a few days into the new year, however, the Cowboys turned the tables on the Vikings in the regular season match-up with a 70-67 victory in overtime.

Kapeliela vividly recalls the game — one in which sophomore O'shen Cazimero led all scorers with 26 points — but mostly because of how the end of regulation transpired.

"What's funny about that game is at the end we were up three (points). We stole the ball with I want to say under 10 seconds left, O'shen is on a 1-on-3 fast break and he could have pulled it out but he drove to the basket and someone took a charge," he detailed.

The Vikings regained possession with about three seconds left. Kapeliela reminded his players to avoid committing a foul, but Hilo's Kaukahi Alameda — who had a team-high 20 points in a losing effort — drained a desperation 3-pointer from distance as time expired.

"From just inside of half court," Kapeliela said. "And we go into overtime."

But the Cowboys did not fold in the extra period.

"We kind of lost momentum, but I told them to ‘forget about it and let's go out there,' and the boys responded. I thought they would fall apart, but they responded, came back — we even scored first in overtime — we made baskets and got stops," Kapeliela said.

The win over the Vikings put Kohala at 3-0 in the BIIF standings. It went on to win its first 10 league games, including a tightly-contested 55-53 win at Kamehameha-Hawaii.

Despite a game-high 30 points from Warriors' senior guard Izayah Chartrand-Penera, the undersized Cowboys were able to make a four-point halftime lead stand up through a back-and-forth second half.

"That game we were down like five (points) with under a minute, but we made steals, made the right passes and at the end scored; they made plays and it just worked out our way in the end, but they're a huge team," Kapeliela said of Kamehameha-Hawaii. "Their point guard, Izayah, is 6-3, they got a 6-5 center — we don't have anyone at 6-feet, our tallest guy is 5-11 — so it's the same game plan every time, we know we're going to be undersized. That game was back-and-forth and we made some crucial stops and some key baskets at the end."

Kohala's winning streak came to an end on Jan. 30, in a 69-59 loss at Hawaii Prep. Kapeliela's bunch tasted defeat for the first time in more than two months and in the penultimate game of the 12-game BIIF regular season.

"Nobody likes to lose, but that game was kind of a good loss. We were undefeated up until that point and it was just one of those wake-up calls where maybe we got comfortable," he explained.

But the Cowboys regained some momentum going into the league playoffs with a 44-41 upset of Waiakea.

"It was senior night and I started all the seniors who didn't get much playing time during the season, so we were thinking we'll see how the game goes, but we're starting the seniors," Kapeliela said.

The visiting Warriors separated a bit on the scoreboard at some point, but Kohala chipped away at their lead and tied in the final minute.

"We got the last possession with 15 seconds left and I called timeout and drew up a play. O'shen attacked the basket and drew an and-one and made the free throw and won it for the seniors. It was crazy," Kapeliela recalled of the frantic finish.

A few days later the Cowboys got another shot at HPA, but fell short once again — this time in the BIIF D2 title game — by a score of 60-42.

"HPA was the worst match-up for us. They can play our style, but they play their own. They can run if they want, but they got a system there," Kapeliela laid out.

The players on both teams are also quite familiar with one another.

"Three of their starters play with our club team (NSP) in the offseason, so they know our strengths and our weaknesses really good — and even some of our plays," Kapeliela laughed.

But out of a second blowout loss at the hands of Ka Makani in a span of six days, Kapeliela was able to draw up some inspiration for his team, which had a two-week break before traveling to Oahu for the state tournament.

"After the BIIF championship game, we got kind of beat up and our talk in the locker room was that I really like our chances at states more than HPA because up in Oahu, no one plays our style of ball," Kapeliela said.

With a lack of height, the Cowboys prefer to push the tempo and get out in the open court offensively, while employing a full-court press on defense.

"The half-court game is not really our strength, so pushing the ball, trying to wear them out where it might be close for the first three quarters but we're going to keep pushing in the fourth quarter, when hopefully they're tired," Kapeliela said.

He didn't see a lot of that style of ball when scouting potential opponents from Oahu.

"They all play HPA style of ball: half court, slow it down and I thought HPA might struggle, but I really liked our chances. No one presses all game, they don't run as much so they want to slow down the game and pound us, but even though we're used to being the smaller team, we force them to play our game," Kapeliela said.

"They just bought into that, they believed in that, that ‘we're going to go up there and we're going to surprise them; they're not ready to run for the full game,' and they bought in," he said. "And it worked out."

It most certainly did. But Kohala was put to the test right off the bat at states by a formidable Kauai team that was seeded third overall in the eight-team field.

"That Kauai team, they were so athletic and long. They were tough," said Kapeliela, whose team held on for the 68-64 win. "They kind of surprised us, but we stuck to our game plan."

Kohala's opponent in the semifinals the following night, McKinley, watched Kapeliela's team employ a full-court press against the Red Raiders.

"We have two different defenses: full-court press and full-court man," Kapeliela explained. "I told my staff that against Kauai we were going to full-court press that whole game and hopefully that game plan works — not saying that we're going to beat Kauai — but if we do, McKinley probably studied our full-court press, not our full-court man."

And, of course, the Cowboys pulled the switcheroo on the Tigers the next day.

"They were expecting our full-court press and we full-court man them the whole game," Kapeliela said. "It worked out just how we were thinking."

The result? Twenty-two turnovers for McKinley, which shot just 11 for 40 (27.5 percent) from the field for the game and was held scoreless in the third quarter.

The final score was indicative of how lopsided it was: Kohala 45, McKinley 27.

And with Roosevelt's 51-39 win over HPA in the other semifinal, the stage was set for Kohala's first appearance in a state championship game since 2007 — which happened to be Kapeliela's first year with the team as an assistant.

Unlike that time — when the lights were too bright for the Cowboys in a 55-28 loss to McKinley in the inaugural D2 state tournament — this team was ready for the big stage. Most of the players on Kapeliela's team also play for his NSP club.

"They've traveled a lot, gone to Vegas, played in big tournaments, played in big arenas and against mainland teams, so when we went into that Roosevelt game it was like another game, but I remember that being a big thing in (2007) with the kids and all the cameras around — I think our boys were so shell-shocked when we walked out there in the Stan Sheriff Center," he recalled.

Kapeliela said it was a scene right out of the movie Hoosiers.

"When they walk out into the gym and it was like, no matter what we say, it didn't matter. In warm-ups they were shooting airballs, free throws, saying the rim looks so far away, but that was the difference I think between the two teams, just the exposure that this team had traveling and playing in big arenas so it was nothing. There was no, ‘oh man, look how big this gym is.' They ate it up. They loved it," he noted.

Kohala held a slim 28-27 lead at halftime, but held Roosevelt to just three third-quarter points to extend their lead to 38-30 to start the fourth.

The Rough Riders would not go quietly into the night, however. Kody Seguancia tied the score at 48 with a pair of free throws with 47.8 seconds to play. Kohala's Moses Emeliano split a couple from the charity stripe with 34 ticks remaining to give his team the lead for good at 49-48.

Drake Watanabe had a chance to put Roosevelt ahead with 26.5 seconds to play, but he missed both free throws. Watanabe had a chance again in the final seconds, but his 3-pointer from the left wing was off the mark.

Emeliano added a couple free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining and Roosevelt's desperation heave from 70 feet was no good.

"Just watching the looks on the kids' faces, I was just speechless. I didn't know what to say. They interviewed me after the game and I couldn't even talk. I was just so happy for the kids because we know how hard they work all year in practice," Kapeliela said.

He noted, however, that it was his team's first time playing on TV that season and it took some getting used to.

"We're not used to playing with TV timeouts, which benefited Roosevelt to recover more for extra rest. Our whole thing is we just want to wear them out, but with TV timeouts it throws our whole gameplan off. That's the only advantage we get is trying to wear them out, but you've got four TV timeouts and each one is two minutes. We're so used to fast timeouts so it was a little different that we're not used to. Some of the Oahu teams play on TV a lot and they're kind of used to that timeout," Kapeliela said.

Cazimero scored a game-high 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting from the field with two rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block. The sophomore shot 3 for 4 on 3-pointers and 6 for 7 from the free-throw line.

After going 0 for 1 on free throws in the first half, the Cowboys were 13 of 15 from the line after the break.

Molonai Emeliano tallied 12 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two assists in the win and was selected to the All-Tournament Team.

After scoring 66 points in Kohala's three state tournament games, Cazimero was selected as the most outstanding player. He was later selected as All-Hawaii D2 Player of the Year.

"The thing on our team is it doesn't matter if you're a freshman or a senior, everyone is equal. Our boys were 11 strong and no one is higher or lower than the other, so even a lot of the seniors looked to O'shen for his leadership," Kapeliela said.

He added that what makes Cazimero special is how he elevates the play of his teammates.

"He just makes everyone around him better, but he's not afraid to take the big shot, or make the last stop, or whatever it takes, like at practices it doesn't matter if we're doing a rebounding drill, a shooting drill — any drill — he wants to win every drill that we do and I think everybody else just follows his work ethic and it's contagious just the way he works," said Kapeliela, who earned All-Hawaii D2 Coach of the Year honors.

If he could, Kapeliela would give the award to his assistants — Reeve Cazimero, Beau Cazimero, Chance Pang and Robin Marquez — all of whom coach club ball with him year-round.

"They were important and made a big impact on the team," he explained.

Kapeliela said he received more than 50 missed calls and over 100 text messages in the hours after the game. Just about everyone in Kohala had the game on TV — those who weren't in attendance at the Stan Sheriff Center, anyway.

"They said it was like watching the Super Bowl in Kohala; it was huge for our community," he said.

The victory also came with a promise from Kapeliela to his players.

"I promised them dinner on us if they pulled it off, but we forgot we had to cut the nets down after the D1 game. We ended up going to Side Street Inn and we had about 30 to 40 guys and took over that restaurant. It was crazy," Kapeliela said.

Upon returning to the Big Island the next day, the team was greeted by a few dozen friends and family members at the Kona airport.

"That was at like 8 o'clock at night," Kapeliela recalled. "And on the drive to town there were signs all over the place and when we pulled into the school parking lot it was full, it was crazy. There was easily over a hundred people there waiting and this is about 10 o'clock at night."

In weeks that followed there was a parade organized by the office of then-Mayor Harry Kim through Kohala town honoring its brand new state championship-winning basketball team. Two of Kim's staff members are Kohala graduates.

"We have a Kamehameha Day parade every year in Kohala and that basketball parade was even bigger than the Kamehameha parade," Kapeliela said.

The parade was held on March 8, 2020, just a few days before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Right after the parade — that was like the last big thing — then this pandemic hit," Kapeliela said. "COVID came and everything shut down and there's no sports. If it was a couple of weeks later, we might not have a state championship, it's crazy the timing of everything."

Needless to say the Cowboys were eager to defend their title, but that chance never came — not this winter anyway. The HHSAA and its five leagues cancelled the winter sports season back in January.

"They were heartbroken," Kapeliela said of addressing his players after the announcement. "It was tough. I mean, the good thing about it is we won last year, but especially for the seniors who won't get to play their last year and their last time playing on the court together, it's tough.

"Yeah, you can always play in tournaments or in pick-up games, but it's totally different when you've got that uniform with ‘KOHALA' on it. These bunch of boys we've been coaching since they were five years old and they grew up playing together and this year we were looking at having our strongest year because we had so much guys returning this year," Kapeliela said. "I mean, the goal every year is to win the state championship and it worked out a year earlier, but this year was the year we were looking forward to."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected]