Additions have turned Kahuku basketball into a power


Kahuku’s Daniel Fotu(15), Kahuku’s Jessiya Villa(4) and Kahuku’s Samuta Avea(32) pose for a photo after the 2016 Iolani Classic Basketball Tournament, Wednesday, December 21, 2016.

One day, Jessiya Villa will wake up on Christmas Day and his long-awaited gift will be there.

It won’t be under a Christmas tree. It will be outside, roaming the grounds, maybe on an animal sanctuary. Outside of basketball, the Kahuku point guard has one bucket-list wish: to own a panda.

“That’s the soft side of me that I rarely show anybody,” the senior said. “Pandas remind me of my younger siblings and I find pandas are a beautiful animal.”

Kahuku fans had a beautiful time cheering on their team last week at the ‘Iolani Classic, where the Red Raiders stunned Mount Vernon (N.Y.), De La Salle (Calif.) and Southwind (Tenn.) to finish third. No Hawaii team had finished that high since ‘Iolani in 2006.

Expectations are always high at Kahuku (10-3, 1-0 OIA East), where returnees Kesi Ah-Hoy, Codie Sauvao and Taimoana Wright were ready to form a solid core. The return of Samuta Avea, who played at Bingham (Utah) as a junior, was a game-changer. Then came the arrival of Villa, nephew of Red Raiders coach Brandyn Akana. Villa, who was born in Hawaii, spent close to a decade living in Virginia. His father, Kahi, was an All-State player for Kamehameha, scoring on the winning three-point play in the 1992 state final against Hilo.

The weekend before the Classic, Dan Fotu arrived from New Zealand via Fiji. The 6-foot-7 Fotu, along with the 6-6 Avea, the 6-4 Wright and the non-stop motor of their backcourt in Villa transformed Kahuku from OIA title contender to, possibly, the best team in the state.

Avea was a 6-foot phenom in 13-under youth leagues just a few years ago. Now he’s 6 inches taller with elite vertical lift and tremendous shot-blocking skill, and he still has the ability to glide coast to coast despite an offseason ankle injury.

When he left in the early summer of 2015 for Utah, it was gut-wrenching. Friends seeing him off at the airport posted photos on social media, not a dry eye to be seen. It wasn’t how Avea had expected his basketball life to unfold, but it was written all along: His first name reflects the birthplace of his father (Samoa) and mother (Utah).

Two weeks ago, Fotu was in Suva, Fiji, playing for the New Zealand U18 team, which reached the FIBA Oceania final before losing to perennial winner Australia. Then it was onward ho to Hawaii. Fotu, the younger brother of former University of Hawaii player Isaac Fotu, has an open chapter ready to be written. At 17, he is a junior and is clearly the youngest of the imports. He jokes that he doesn’t totally miss his mother, Jenny — “Use your manners!” she often tells him — and finds Kahuku quite a change from the busy urban setting of Auckland.

For now, the pendulum of momentum is with Kahuku, which ascends to No. 1 in this week’s Star-Advertiser Top 10. Punahou drops to No. 2. There is a significant drop in competition for Kahuku during the OIA East season, while Punahou will be clawing through a tough ILH schedule. All the trappings of complacency are set up at the feet of the Red Raiders.

“We just try to have tunnel vision,” Villa said. “The importance of that and keeping our eyes straight on the prize, which is a state championship. We don’t want to be distracted. We want to take it game by game and we’ve done a good job of that. We don’t think of rankings and all that. We just want to improve, practice hard, get each other better. We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Villa sees Avea playing through pain on an ankle that hasn’t fully healed. He watches Fotu square up on the baseline and drive for reverse layups. He sees Avea and Fotu making the extra pass to an open teammate like Ah-Hoy for an open 3, or Sauvao for a layup on the cut. He sees Wright hit big midrange shots. It is Villa whom Akana hands the keys to every time.

“I’m thankful for him relying on me and trusting me. I praise my teammates every night. Ultimately, my job is to be a second Brandyn Akana and be a leader, and give him my input,” Villa said.

On Wednesday, Kahuku will host Kailua, which beat Arizona No. 1 Corona del Sol and Dr. Phillips (Fla.) at the Classic.

Q&A with Jessiya Villa, Samuta Avea and Dan Fotu

Favorite athlete

Villa: My father (William “Kahi” Villa)

Avea: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

Fotu: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks

Favorite team

Villa: San Antonio Spurs

Avea: Kahuku

Fotu: Milwaukee Bucks

Favorite food (at home)

Villa: Fruits

Avea: Pasta

Fotu: Rice

Favorite food (eating out)

Villa: Chicken alfredo w/ shrimp

Avea: Olive Garden

Fotu: KFC

Favorite movie

Villa: “The Blindside”

Avea: “Deadpool”

Fotu: “Finding Dory”

Favorite TV show

Villa: “Martin” & “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”

Avea: “The Office”

Fotu: “Workaholics”

Favorite music artist

Villa: Bruno Mars, J. Cole

Avea: Lil Yachty, Ugly God, Drake

Fotu: The Jersey Boys

Favorite motto/scripture

Villa: “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” — Kevin Durant

Avea: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.”

Fotu: “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”

What does it mean to represent Kahuku basketball today?

Villa: It defines a love and family-oriented culture. Whenever I put on a jersey with “Kahuku” across of the front, I put in perspective my ancestors, family and this community, and how I play for them.

Avea: Everything. Was a water boy in elementary, grew up dreaming of making the team and now have the opportunity to get Kahuku basketball our first state championship.

Fotu: Representing the entire North Shore community. RR4L!!!

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