When looking back on this season’s state championship game in Hilo in February, the HBA girls varsity basketball team will never forget the blaring, unmistakable sound of the buzzer that signaled the end of the game and crowned them Division II State Champions for the first time in the school’s history.
Last year, the same buzzer crowned Honoka‘a the state champions in a close 2-point win (33-31) against the Lady Eagles. This year, HBA head coach Keith Sugiura and his team returned to take the state title with a 44-31 win against Kamehameha-Hawaii.
The Lady Eagles entered the tournament with solid wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals against Damien (65-36) and Kohala (52-42) respectively. In the finals game, the Lady Eagles gained an early six point lead with three pointers by senior point guard Stephanie Dang and sophomore shooting guard Katelyn Nakagawa. In the third quarter, senior forward Ashley Benn scored six points, extending her team’s lead against the Warriors. “I was more focused on defense, which is what the coaches depended on me to do,” says Benn, “but it felt good to make those points because it made me more confident that we were gonna return to Oahu with our first Koa head.” Sophomore forward Ally Wada added 13 points to the board, making her the highest scoring player in the game.
For Stephanie Dang, who has been on the varsity team since her freshman year, the win can only be described as “surreal.” Her father, Andrew Dang, who has attended almost every game this season, remembers the exact moment the girls won and the emotions that came with it. “As the buzzer sounded, I felt like I could finally exhale,” he says. “I was so proud of the team and coaches, and of course Steph. I really wanted the victory for Coach Keith and his staff as we came so close last year.”
Every day of the season [the girls] choose basketball and they choose each other, and [that’s] what makes me love the game and want to be a better coach.
2009 alumni and assistant coach Isaac Hayashi describes the final moment as “exciting and amazing” and adds that he sees the win as a well-deserved reward for all the people involved in HBA’s basketball program since its inception. “As it all happened, I started to think about all the past players, coaches, teachers, friends, and families that were involved in making this possible,” says Hayashi.
Stephanie Dang, junior forward CJ Ramos and Wada capped off their season by making it onto the HHSAA Division II All Tournament Team. Wada says, “It was an honor to represent the team and I think in the end it was a team effort. Stephanie, CJ, and I wouldn’t have made it this far without everyone.”
Leading up to States, the team kept the same mindset of tackling one game at a time and only slightly tweaked their regular training regimen. To prepare for the state championships, Sugiura set up a scrimmage between the girls and some HBA alumni boys varsity players. It turned out to be a helpful exercise last year so he decided to do it again this year. To prepare for their games, the Lady Eagles would study videos of their competition in order to learn the other teams’ habits and tricks. “In the days before traveling to Hilo, we spoke to our players about ‘keeping the game small,’ understanding and executing our responsibilities, managing our emotions, and limiting external distractions,” says Sugiura, who has been coaching for seven years. “We tried to follow the same game plan and routine going into the state tournament.”
For many of the returning players, last year’s championship final loss motivated them to train hard this season. Wada says, “I think for the returnees, we all knew what it felt like to be so close to winning. The seniors last year were our motivation. We wanted to win for them because they paved the way for us through all the hard work that they put in.” Junior guard Kiara Chun adds that the current senior players also motivated her to work hard every day through encouraging text messages that they sent out to the entire team.
We wanted to win for [last year’s seniors] because they paved the way for us through all the hard work that they put in.
As the youngest person on the girls varsity coaching staff, Amber Au, a 2012 alumna, says the girls motivated her to be the best coach she could be. “There’s no sense in coaching for me if it’s not for the individual personalities and talents that come together and play together,” says Au. “Every day of the season [the girls] choose basketball and they choose each other, and [that’s] what makes me love the game and want to be a better coach.”
With seven seniors graduating last year, many freshmen and underclassmen stepped into new roles this year. According to Sugiura, this new mix of younger girls with only four seniors proved to be a challenge but he points out that this didn’t stop the team from coming together in the end. Au alludes the beginning of the season to “a room of empty chairs that the girls slowly filled in.” She adds that she admires the way all the girls step up to lead the team at different times. “Maybe in the past, I’ve mentally taken it upon myself to point out the leaders of the group and expect them to lead,” she says. “This season, each grade had a voice at their own will and I think it made a huge difference in team chemistry and troubleshooting.”
Stephanie Dang, Benn, and senior forward Keisha Ching were co-captains this season. Stephanie Dang says that she learned that “a leader can’t simply lead by example because some [people] aren’t motivated by that. [A leader] needs to create unity and always communicate.”
Forming a team bond was something the girls worked at throughout the entire season. For many of the girls, a favorite memory was the night in Hilo when they visited the Halema‘uma‘u volcanic crater and had to pose for two minutes in the cold for a team picture Andrew Dang insisted on taking. Others fondly reminisce about Sugiura’s tradition of treating the team to a buffet at the Hawaii Prince Hotel and a movie. Stephanie Dang recalls when Sugiura drove the team off campus and tricked them into thinking they had to run back to school from wherever the bus dropped them off. Instead, he drove them to Shimazu’s Shave Ice and treated the entire team to a refreshing snack, with no running required.
Chun looks back at the season with a sense of accomplishment. “We grinded [sic] and pushed every day, during every game and practice. Every win felt good no matter who we played because I know we worked hard for it,” she says. With the end of the season, Chun and the other underclassmen players are already eyeing next year’s state championship. Wada says, “Next season, hopefully we can repeat what we did this year, not only in terms of winning, but something more lasting, like creating relationships that will hopefully last past our high school careers.”
The Lady Eagles finished the regular ILH Division II season with a perfect record (14-0), defending their ILH title before heading to the State Championships. Four players from the Lady Eagles were named onto the ILH All-Star team: Stephanie Dang took the title of Most Valuable Player and Wada made it onto the First Team. Benn and Ramos made the Honorable Mention list.