The opening day of the OIA-ILH Challenge will be highlighted by a matchup of undefeated teams when Kamehameha takes on Kahuku.
The Warriors (4-0) and Red Raiders (4-0) will meet in the 7 p.m. game Thursday, the third of four games at Moanalua High School gymnasium. The eight-team non-bracketed tournament continues Friday and concludes Saturday.
While Kahuku brings the distinction of being the reigning Division I state champion, it also is made up of a relatively young roster. A total of 10 seniors graduated from last year's team, including all five starters.
"We're young, but the players are working hard," Red Raiders coach Brandyn Akana said. "We still need to mesh together and as the season goes on that'll take care of itself. We've seen some good things, but we've also seen some things that we need to improve."
Among those that Akana's squad must replace are a trio of All-Hawaii first team picks in front court players Daniel Fotu and Samuta Avea, along with D1 Player of the Year, Jessiya Villa.
This year's team features just three seniors, but one of them is considered to be a premiere talent in 6-foot-10 Tolu Smith, who is signed to play for Western Kentucky next year.
"I think he's definitely a special player," Akana said of the transfer from Mississippi. "We've seen it throughout the first four games already and I think it's always great to play or have a teammate with that kind of skill set. He's meshing in well with the other players, which is great to see, and of course, we hope he gets better and better as the season goes on."
Smith, who is averaging 17.8 points per game, is nursing some "nagging injuries," but Akana expects him to play in all three games for Kahuku this week. The Red Raiders will also play Saint Louis at 8:30 p.m. Friday and Iolani at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
"He's a little banged up and is probably not one-hundred percent, but he's playing," said Akana, who expressed his appreciation for the Challenge's format, which pits OIA teams against ILH teams in all four games daily.
"I think it's awesome. I think these are the type of games that every coach wants to play because we won't get to play them — if we do, it'll be in the (state) playoffs later in February — but this early on in the season, I think it's great for both the ILH teams and the OIA teams to kind of see where we're at," Akana said. "I think a lot of the better teams in the state of Hawaii come from the ILH, so it's always great to play against the ILH."
While Akana said it would be nice to ride the momentum of last season's state championship, mostly he'd like to turn the page on that season.
"We keep telling each other that it doesn't matter what happened last year. This is a whole new year and we've got a bunch of new players," Akana said. "I think last year was a great year. It was great to see that success, but it's time to move on and we have a new year. I think it's great for this year's team to see the success of last year's team — many of them were on the team. I think going through that last year with our school, community and program gives our new kids a lot of confidence."
The Red Raiders will face their toughest test to date in the form of the Warriors, who have notched wins over fellow-ILH foes Saint Francis and Iolani, and are coming off a two-point win over Farrington Tuesday.
"We're still a work in progress, like everybody else, but I'm really happy with the dynamics of what our team is and that's what is really most important in terms of our team having success, is working together and taking care of each other on the court," Kamehameha coach Greg Tacon said.
While Kahuku features a young squad, Tacon's team is a well-seasoned one that features seven seniors. Leading the way is 6-foot-2 guard Kamren Victorino-Kato (17.8 ppg this preseason) and 6-foot-6 forward Kobe Young (15.3 ppg).
"We're hoping that our experience will pay off because we have so many veteran guys, led by two all-state type kids in Kobe and Kam," Tacon said. "We need to improve upon certain things — game management, free-throw shooting, defensively we gotta get better — but all of those things, with the exception of free throws, we're going in the right direction, so it's just a matter of putting it together."
Kamehameha will also face Leilehua at 4 p.m. Friday and wrap up the Challenge with host-Moanalua at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
"We've got another good tournament this weekend," said Tacon, whose team claimed the Kailua Surfriders Holiday Classic last weekend. "I think most coaches are figuring out how to use kids off the bench. We're finding out who we can put in and who can we trust, but we've got good candidates for that so we'll see who rises to the top."
Other day one games Thursday are Mid-Pacific—Roosevelt at 4 p.m., Iolani-Leilehua at 5:30 p.m. and Saint Louis-Moanalua at 8:30 p.m.
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