Kahuku basketball carries on family tradition

Jan. 9—The ball bounces just the same on every kid's favorite basketball court.

The ball bounces just the same on every kid's favorite basketball court.

For the Wily ohana, the grass isn't greener on the other side. It's perfectly green at Laie Park. Tailele Wily-Ava was a toddler chasing the ball around while older sister Tuisila and aunty (yes, aunty ) Posia Wily began playing organized hoops for the first time. Posia, or "Popo, " and Sila were 5. Lele was 3. Middle brother Isala was 4.

Their grandfather ran the PAL basketball program up north, and when Lele's father, Justin, suggested that she might as well play with the team, a dream was ignited.

"Playing with my siblings, my aunty Popo, getting experience. That's where it started for me, " said Lele, now a freshman point guard who is essential to Kahuku's success.

Three young girls playing lots of pickup basketball, doing cone drills constantly—not a common sight at most Parks and Recreation outdoor courts. Laie Park, however, is where members of the Wily family held Big Boys football practice. That parental presence makes the park a safe haven. A basketball sanctuary.

"I definitely knew I had a passion for basketball, " said Lele, now 5 feet, 8 inches tall. "Watching my mom and aunty play definitely gave me a spark. Not just when we played at the park, but they would play in games and tournaments. We trained every day except for Sunday. We all grew up and had that mentality that there's always someone who can outwork us. We have to be hungrier than them."

This winter, Big Red is on the rise. There were struggles against the state's elite teams, along with some notable wins. During their trip to the Big Island in November, Kahuku beat Lahainaluna at the Konawaena Invitational as Lele Wily-Ava broke out with 19 points, including five 3-pointers, in her first varsity game.

Then came a one-point loss to powerhouse Waiakea. A day later, Kahuku led nine-time state champion Konawaena in the fourth quarter before losing 51-47.

Posia Wily, a 5-5 junior, has been golden with 15 points per game in OIA play. Versatile Tuisila Wily-Ava, a 5-10 junior, is scoring 11 points per game. With Elisa Holakeituai (11 ppg ) and Makana Kamakeeaina (10 ppg ) emerging into substantial roles, the Lady Raiders have one of the most balanced units in the league.

Kahuku is 7-0 in OIA East play (10-6 overall ), playing with chemistry and cohesion. The arrival of Lele Wily-Ava brought order to the backcourt.

The reunion is a fairly common theme in Kahuku athletes in recent years. Holakeituai and Kamakeeaina going back to their roots—they were on that same Laie PAL team back in the day—forms a very solid five. Holakeituai, a 5-11 senior, transferred home from Maryknoll and broke out with 15 points in a win over Kamehameha-Hawaii. Kamakeeaina, a 5-11 sophomore, transferred home from Damien and has been a steady contributor, capable of a double-double on any night—a low-post scorer with excellent accuracy from 3-point range.

"They came on their own. I didn't know they were coming (to Kahuku ) this year, " Sila Ava-Wily said. "We all train at Skills Academy, and Lele told us one day."

Popo Wily has the scars that come with the injuries of her basketball career. She is in a rare category of athlete, supremely talented with a toughness that is unmatched. The first ACL tear, in sixth grade, was in her left knee The second, as a freshman, to the right.

"It's all mental. I think you've just got to do things to find your motivation and push yourself. The second time, we were playing at our gym in preseason (of 2021-22 ). I was just hoping it wasn't an ACL. I just had to motivate myself for sophomore year. I just knew it was going to be harder, but I didn't want to quit."

The promise of Kahuku girls basketball has been around for ages. Between 1980 and'94, the Lady Raiders won four OIA titles. Two were under Norman Pule, one under Harry Kahuanui, and one under Byron Beatty.

When coach Artevia "Tavia " Wily and older sister Latoya were prep ballers, Kahuku won back-to-back OIA championships in 2004 and'05 under Wendy Anae. That ended a dry spell of 14 years without a league championship.

In'09, under David Te 'o, Kahuku won an OIA Division II crown. The potential remained enormous, but as with many other communities across the state, most of the taller, athletic kids who began life bouncing a basketball eventually gravitated to volleyball.

It took the hiring of Latoya Wily as head coach to get a major spark started. In turn, the former All-State center brought in Tavia as an assistant coach, guiding Kahuku to the OIA title in 2019 with the posse of Popo, Sila and Lele tagging along.

By this time, Popo and Sila had begun middle school. Years of drills and pickup games on the asphalt accumulated.

"Once Toya took over, we just dragged them in. If we're in season, we get to be in the gym, " Tavia Wily-Ava said. "You get to fill the water bottles, shag the balls and jump into drills. Sometimes, they were the ones demonstrating drills for the new girls."

It has been far too early to draw direct comparisons between one generation of Wily hoopsters to another, but the younger group is edging closer. The elders were All-State hoopsters, but the future is wide open.

"They're different from us. Back then, the competition level was higher, probably. We look up to them, so I don't think of it as comparisons. I think of it as a compliment, " Popo Wily said. "They always tell us their team would beat us."

Latoya Wily, humble on and off the court, couldn't help but humble-brag about the up-and-coming Lady Raiders. She could see the future years ago.

"This one, " she said, with her arm around sixth-grade Sila, "is going to be good in high school."

When she stepped down before the 2021-22 season, Tavia stepped up to become head coach, but adversity struck. Sila suffered her second ACL injury in preseason. Popo, just a freshman, carried the load and the burden of multiple roles : rebounding, defending, scoring and running the point.

Last season, Sila returned from injury and Kahuku went 9-2 in the OIA regular season. The sophomores helped Kahuku qualify for the state tournament, where they lost to Waiakea in the opening round, 56-44.

TeArawa Campbell brings long-range shooting off the bench. The Lady Raiders aren't as deep as four-time defending state champion 'Iolani or No. 2 Kamehameha, but the gap has closed. Moanalua has more big-game experience and Campbell is the reigning two-time OIA champion, but Kahuku is a sleeper no more. Moanalua coach Kirk Ronolo got to know the family while he coached the Lightning basketball club.

"I can't remember how old Popo and Sila were when I first saw them, but I do remember I was wowed by their size and athleticism. Popo's game IQ is head and shoulders above her peers. Sila's strength is phenomenal, and in her younger years, she didn't realize it, " he said. "As she got older and understood the game more, she learned how to use it to her advantage."

The youngest, Lele, made an impact despite her youth.

"She was a third grader, I believe, when she started playing with us, and she would practice with our intermediate girls—and hold her own. I knew then that she was going to be a special one, " Ronolo said. "Not only do they have the elite skill set, they have the bond, a chemistry that doesn't compare to any other. They have some big shoes to fill because Latoya and Artevia are legends, but they're well on their way."

The world has changed since the Wily sisters were steamrolling opponents with skill and physicality on the hardwood. Their edge was the era they grew up in, when dads and young men would play pickup games at Laie Park every day after work. The Wily girls had to get tougher and better, or sit down. It gave them an amazing edge.

"It forced us to think. Our IQ had to be better. It was a more physical game. That's one of the biggest things we miss (at Laie Park ), " Tavia Wily-Ava said. "Nobody really paid trainers like it is now."

Last summer, the family took a break from driving to town for games, for training. No mainland trips. Just training every day at Laie Park on their own, or with Chris Parker of Laie Skills Academy. The new generation has followed the blueprint. The grass is greener where you water it.

"We pretty much lived at the park, " Tavia Wily-Ava said of her youth. "We just went home to sleep and stuff."

The drive is in the bloodline. Maybe it's equal parts hope and naivete, but Lele Wily-Ava doesn't see any reason why her vision can't come true.

"I think we can make it pretty far. How far ? To the state championship, " she said. "I think if we work hard and we focus on the little things, the little things can make a big difference for our team."