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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, December 27, 2003

Kea'au takes court; tries to put tragedy behind

By Wes Nakama
Advertiser Staff Writer

Damien players and coaches showed support for their Kea'au counterparts at the Punahou Holiday Classic. The Cougars' Austin Meyers, 16, passed away Tuesday.

Photos by Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Kea'au players honored teammate Austin Meyers, who died of cardiac arrest following basketball practice.
Teardrops fell like soft Hilo rain inside Punahou School's Hemmeter Field House yesterday, shortly before Kea'au's varsity boys basketball team was about to take the court for the first time without teammate Austin Meyers.

It had been three days since Meyers, a 16-year-old junior, died after suffering cardiac arrest following practice in the Cougars' gym in quiet Kea'au — about nine miles south of Hilo. But the grief felt then was still fresh several days and islands away in tranquil Manoa.

"It's unbelievable ... I still cannot believe it," said Inoa Burgess, a basketball teammate and friend since elementary school. "I would see him and talk to him every day, in classes and at practice. I'm like the sixth man and he was the seventh, so we would come off the bench together."

The Cougars, who made their first state tournament appearance last year, lost to Damien, 57-37, yesterday.

Afterward, Kea'au players admitted their focus was not totally on basketball.

"We still had him in the back of our minds," said Cougar Wade Ishibashi Jr.

The official cause of death still is unknown, and Meyers' family, friends, teammates and coaches have yet to fully come to grips with not having him around. But the players voted Wednesday afternoon to follow through with their trip to Honolulu for the Punahou Holiday Classic, which began yesterday.

"We decided to do it for him, so the team can get better," Burgess said.

Ishibashi, who was Meyers' friend and classmate since kindergarten, said he visited Meyers' home on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but knew making the trip was the right thing to do.

"I went to his house and spent time with his mom and brothers (Kainalu and Kainui)," Ishibashi said. "It was a hard time. But (Meyers) would like us to go. I don't think he would have liked us to stay back."

The team jogged onto the court shortly after noon yesterday and went through its normal warm-up routine for 15 minutes. But before tipoff, the Cougars lined up single file and Punahou associate athletic director Jeff Meister called the sparse crowd into a moment of silence for Meyers.

Damien's players followed by presenting each of the Kea'au players and staff with a Monarchs baseball cap, shaking hands and offering hugs with the gifts.

"I can't imagine what they are going through right now; they showed a lot of courage just by showing up," Damien coach Byron Mello said of the Cougars. "They're a good team, and we were looking forward to playing them. But (Meyers' death) was tough for my players, too, when they found out. That kind of reality is tough for any team, especially being so young."

A few Monarchs clearly felt the emotion, and sniffles and tissue were in big supply a few rows above the Kea'au bench, where about a dozen of Meyers' relatives sat.

"We figured we'd come to support the team," said Kimberly Nakata, Meyers' aunt from Wai'anae. "If Austin were here, we definitely would have come anyway."

In their pregame yell, the Cougars joined right hands and hollered, "1-2-3, AUSTIN!!!"

Paul Rapoza's steal and layup gave Kea'au a 14-13 lead early in the second period, but Justin Casil answered with a short jumper and Damien never trailed again.

There were more highlights for the Cougars. Aukai Wong drained a 3-pointer just before halftime to cut the Monarchs' lead to 27-19, and Kea'au scored the first four points of the third period to make it 27-23.

At halftime, Cougars junior Ryan Tenorio took the lead in an all-tournament free throw contest by sinking 23 of 25.

And throughout the game, even when down by 15 points or more, Kea'au players were seen scrambling on defense, chasing down rebounds, diving for loose balls.

"They were playing hard, playing inspired basketball," Mello said. "If they shot the ball a little better, it would have been a different game, but the effort was there. That's a tribute to them and their coaches under these trying circumstances."

The Cougars, only one of whom is a senior, had been through a lot even before Meyers' death. Kea'au won the Big Island Interscholastic Federation championship in February, only to be stripped of the title last summer when it was discovered it had used an ineligible player.

The Cougars also went through a last-minute change in athletic directors at the beginning of this school year, and then three weeks ago head coach Tim Lovejoy was fired for undisclosed reasons.

Then came Tuesday, when Meyers had his best practice.

"I passed out an itinerary for the trip, and was going over it when I heard somebody call Austin's name and saw him slouch down," said Wade Ishibashi Sr., who took over as head coach. "He passed his physicals and had a clean bill of health — that's what makes it more disturbing. At first I felt really down and didn't want to come (to Honolulu), but I left it up to the kids and the young men turned around and made a decision. Now I think it's good.

"Just being together will help us. Definitely."

Reach Wes Nakama at wnakama@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2456.