A Sure Shot

Achieving greatness through hard work and dedication

Department: Athletics

By B.J. Reyes
Photos by Kristen Collat

The teachings and wisdom of the late, legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden fit perfectly with the mission of Punahou to develop students in mind, body and spirit.

It was said that Wooden, who led the Bruins to 10 national championships in the 1960s and ’70s, never stressed the importance of winning, but instead emphasized the importance of personal growth and the team concept.

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Girls Varsity II player Cassandra Uyema ’15 leads her team down the court.

His philosophy included the “Pyramid of Success,” a diagram of human qualities and character traits such as confidence, alertness and cooperation that formed the building blocks needed to reach the ultimate goal of “Competitive Greatness.”

It’s an imprint that also can be seen in Punahou’s basketball teams – all 11 of them, more than most other sports at the School.

This attitude stems from the top, from boys coach Darren Matsuda and girls coach Kevin Velasco ’75.

“The focus is on trying to do better every day, working hard and playing each day, one at a time,” Matsuda says. “When we do that, we know that things will probably work out well for us.

“So we don’t necessarily talk about the end result or the end goal. We want to focus on the present and doing the right thing every day.”

Velasco has placed Wooden’s stamp on his program quite literally: Players have a T-shirt featuring the Pyramid of Success. And the coach sometimes starts off practice by reading the team a motivational quote, many of which come from – you guessed it – John Wooden.

“It’s to give them something that they’ve got to think about,” Velasco says. “What does that mean? What does it mean to you as a player, as a person?”

The formula has proven successful. Both the boys and girls programs each have captured 11 state championships to go along with 19 Interscholastic League of Honolulu championships for the girls and 17 for the boys.

As the basketball program marks 100 years of interscholastic competition (the boys team helped inaugurate the sport in the ILH in 1915; while the girls team did not join the ILH until 1972, games against schools such as Kamehameha and McKinley were played as early as 1914), the players understand the high standards set by teams of the past, says Dayson Watanabe ’15, a senior on the boys Varsity I squad.

“The focus is on trying to do better every day, working hard and playing each day, one at a time.”

“The program has been really good and we – our team – just want to try and keep it thriving and pushing forward,” he says. “The jersey you’re wearing and the number you’re wearing – you’re not just representing yourself but you’re also representing the people that came before you.”

Adds teammate Jordan Tanuvasa ’15: “I know that Punahou has been very successful in athletics in the past in football, basketball – everything. So every time I put on that jersey and step on that court, I just know I’ve got to play my best and give my best effort.”

Basketball is among the more popular athletic programs at Punahou, fielding a total of 11 teams, including boys and girls Varsity I and Varsity II squads. The boys also field two junior varsity squads and three intermediate teams. Girls comprise one team each at the JV and intermediate level.

Success leads to increased popularity in the programs. The popularity leads to competitiveness among the students vying for the team. The competition breeds high-quality teams. And those teams help sustain the high success of the program.

“I think the kids are motivated in themselves just to be successful and trying to do the best they can,” Coach Matsuda says.

“It’s amazing how every year great players show up,” adds one of his players, Micah Ma‘a ’15. “I think that’s the most spectacular thing – there’s not really a downfall. Whenever a good class leaves, a new, really good team comes up. I think that’s pretty cool. We almost have too many good players for our own benefit.”

Success and popularity has a downside, too. With 11 teams and only one main practice facility, logistics for the use of the basketball courts at Hemmeter Fieldhouse can be tricky. Jeff Meister, assistant athletics director, said that scheduling became doubly complicated when federal Title IX equal opportunity requirements shifted the girls basketball season to winter, to coincide with the boys season.

“It’s just about getting time because there are so many teams,” says Tyra Moe ’16, a junior on Velasco’s Varsity I team.

Both coaches credit their players with putting in the hard work and staying dedicated while not letting their studies fall by the wayside, but players are just as quick to return much of that same appreciation to their coaches.

“I think anyone who plays sports knows that you have to budget your time,” says sophomore Elle Uyeda ’17, Moe’s teammate. “I’d say there’s a balance: You need to get your work done and budget your time. At the same time, we definitely know that school is more important.”

B.J. Reyes is a reporter and freelance writer based in Honolulu. His work has appeared in publications throughout the U.S. and Asia.

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