Basketball Cougars Hope For Move To DI With OIA Title

Kaiser High’s return to Oahu prep basketball’s high-rent district could likely prompt a promotion to Division I next year, which is fine with second-year head coach Branden Kawazoe.

“It will be year three for us, and it will give us a chance to test ourselves against the best,” he said. That’s all in the future, of course, as the team focused late last week on finishing out the 2014-15 season the right way. The Cougars earned the No. 2 seed for last week’s state tournament, after claiming their second straight OIA DII title with a win over Kalani. Kaiser took a 21-8 record (including preseason) into the state tourney.

The OIA format, which gives DI and DII teams the chance to play each other, already has allowed Kaiser to test itself against DI schools, and the results have been favorable. It went 7-4 for the season, posting wins over DI’s Roosevelt, Kailua, McKinley and (OIA Red champion) Farrington, while its only loss to a DII team (as of late last week) was to Kalani in the Jan. 3 season opener. (Kaiser also beat DI Saint Louis in preseason and lost by a point to Kamehameha-Kapalama.)

“I’m really proud of them to this point,” said Kawazoe, who played and coached at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., before returning home to join Dean Shimamoto’s Iolani staff. “It’s been a real season of growth. We spent last year laying the foundation, and we wanted to build on that this year. The kids understand the expectations now as far as coming to practice every day and having a good work ethic in the classroom. They’ve grown as basketball players and people.”

Of Kaiser’s starting five, all but senior point guard Kelsey Lewis II (13.2 points per game; 36 3-pointers) are expected to be back next year. Lewis II was been a huge contributor this season. “He can score the ball, and he’s an absolute student of the game,” Kawazoe said. “Academically, he gets it done.”

Fellow starters Chance Kalaugher, Keoua Mahiko, Nicolas Tom and Isaiah Lundell all have a year of eligibility left. Kalaugher, a versatile 6-foot-5 forward, averaged a team-leading 17 ppg this year. “He’s grown tremendously in the two full seasons I’ve coached him,” Kawazoe said. “He’s matured on and off of the court, and this year he’s been our main guy, offensively and defensively. A lot of our offense runs through him, and, defensively, he’s our best rebounder.”

Mahiko averaged 13.4 ppg and had 42 three-pointers to his credit as of late last week. “He was a standout on JV last year, and he’s been a real bright spot this year. We didn’t know what to expect, but the kid’s a gamer.”

Kawazoe also had special praise for Lundell and Tom, whom he tagged as “glue guys. Those two kids represent the culture of what are,” he said. “They are as selfless as any players I’ve had before.”

For Kawazoe, his transition year seems a long time ago now. “As far as on the court, they’ve become more comfortable with my style,” he said, “and they have a year of experience playing with each other. They’re more confident with the system and our principles, offensively and defensively.”