Pascua, Naeata led Lunas, Red Raiders last week

Female Athlete of the Week: Leiah Naeata, Kahuku basketball

When Leiah Naeata first joined the Kahuku girls basketball team last year, coach Latoya Wily saw enough out of her to tab her as a captain, despite being just a freshman.

This season, the 5-foot-7 guard has taken her game — and her leadership — to another level.

"For me and my coaching staff, it was about putting that responsibility on her as a freshman because we were looking to build this program and we needed somebody that can grow all four years with the program," Wily said. "Her freshman year, basketball-wise she definitely had the skills to be a captain, but it was about trying to instill in her that leadership role and now, as a sophomore, she's taken the reins big time, she knows what it's all about, what we expect from her. All of our girls, we expect them to be leaders regardless, but she's taken on that role very seriously."

Naeata, who runs the point for the ninth-ranked Red Raiders (6-0) but can also play shooting guard or small forward, led her team to its biggest win of the season last week Tuesday, when she scored a season-high 22 points in a pivotal 51-48 road win over then-No. 6 Kalani.

"It was huge," Wily said of the victory over the Falcons, which put her team in sole possession of first place in the Oahu Interscholastic Association's Division I East standings.

"I mean, every game is a big one for us and that's something that we always tell our girls is, regardless of whoever we're playing or what their record is, we treat every single game like it's the big show and I was just proud of the girls because to me, I feel like every team needs that one game that could just give them even more confidence than before and Kalani is an awesome team, so of course, it's important, but we're also expecting that just like us, they're gonna get better throughout the season, but that was definitely one of the bigger ones for us this season."

Kahuku held a one-point lead at halftime, but railed by five after three quarters. Wily said Naeata was a big part of the fourth quarter, when the Red Raiders outscored the Falcons, 16 to 8.

"Absolutely. Defense-wise, our main goal was to keep getting stops. There were a few close moments, but she stayed calm, she did a good job defensively as well as on the boards," Wily said. "She's been a lot more active on the boards this season than last season and that's awesome to see that she's improving and growing. She's just adding a lot more versatility to her game, so it's nice to see that."

Naeata's offensive production against Kalani was not limited to just scoring.

"She did great. I mean, they all did," Wily said. "They all came together. Leiah definitely played her role. She attacked defenses as needed, she dishes the ball as needed; it just depends on what the defense gives her. She's incorporating her teammates whether it's finishing a layup or dishing it out to an open teammate because she's getting double- or triple-teamed off of her drives. They all kind of feed off of each other."

Wily said the most fitting word to describe Naeata's performance last Tuesday is "perseverance."

"Our team motto this year is ‘look up, lift up,' and as one of the team captains, just for her to keep her head and stay in the game mentally was what impressed me. It was a little bit rocky throughout the game, we were down at times, but she didn't let it get to her and her teammates and she just kept persevering to get us back on top. She hit some key free throws, grabbed some key rebounds and she just persevered to keep her teammates going, keep pushing and she kept lifting up teammates up."

Naeata's role grew to an even larger one with an injury to senior forward Sisilia Kaufusi that she sustained in the preseason and will keep her out for the rest of the year.

"At the beginning of the season I had the girls write out what their goals are that they want to accomplish as a team and then what they're gonna do individually to contribute to our team goals," Wily said. "When we lost Sisi we had a conversation as a team and I pretty much told the girls that it doesn't matter who is here, or who comes, who goes, our goals are never gonna change as a team. We're still gonna be shooting for our goals and we expect nothing less. Leiah took that upon herself — all of our players took that upon themselves — that even though we don't have Sisi, our goals are not gonna change."

For the season, Naeata is averaging 18.2 points per game through league play. It was the third time she eclipsed the 20-point mark in a game this year.

"She's a slasher, she loves to attack the basket. She can finish, she can hit free throws. Defensively, we can put her on one of the best guards on the other team and expect her to do her part successfully. She gets physical, we can throw her inside to post-up a guard and also she's just scrappy. I would say she's an all-around player and then this year she's added another threat to her game being able to shoot from the perimeter," Wily said. "She's someone that is definitely gonna always be improving no matter how successful she is."

Wily described Naeata as "all business" on the court, but "fun loving" off of it.

"She's just a great kid overall. This group is a close-knit bunch of girls. They're very outgoing and it's awesome to see that they can be serious when they need to be and they're all good students. They can take care of business on the court and still enjoy being teenagers off the court," Wily said.

Naeata and the Red Raiders will host Kailua Thursday before visiting Kaiser Saturday. Tip-off for both games is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Pascua, Naeata led Lunas, Red Raiders last week