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How an injury impacted a Hawaii state title game, but not the legacy of the state’s best player

Christmas Togiai, center wearing a lei, will continue his basketball career in the NAIA playing for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. (Courtesy: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Athletics)

HONOLULU, Hawaii (BVM) – Christmas Togiai’s senior year certainly didn’t end the way he envisioned it.

Ranked as the No. 1 team for the majority of the season, Kamehameha-Kapalama and Togiai appeared perfectly positioned to hoist a Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I basketball state championship. The Warriors went a perfect 13-0 in league play and easily took care of business in their opening game of the state tournament.

It wasn’t until about two minutes were left in the state semifinal that Kamehameha-Kapalama and Togiai had their ultimate goal all but shattered. It had nothing to do with the result of the game, as the Warriors knocked off Kahuku in a close contest to advance to the state final, but everything to do with their star.

As Togiai drove the right side of the lane, like he successfully does so often, he collapsed to the hardwood and had to exit the game. Togiai found out hours later that he had torn his ACL.

The Warriors won the game, but Togiai’s season was over just a day before he would suit up to play in the state championship. Although Kamehameha-Kapalama reached its destination of a state final, it had to knock off No. 2 Maryknoll without its best player and perhaps one of the state’s best talents.

Despite beating the Spartans three times during the regular season, the Togiai-less Warriors lost 46-33 in the Division I state title game.

“Maryknoll is a great team, and we always play them close, but I feel Christmas was a huge loss for us that night,” Kamehameha-Kapalama head coach Larry Park said. “Not only does he bring a complete game on both sides of the floor, but his leadership, his ability to go get baskets and rebounds is unmatched.  His presence makes it easier for everyone else on our team. The other guys had to shoot a little bit tougher shots because Chris wasn’t on the court drawing that attention.”

Although Park said he believes the outcome may have been the same because Maryknoll is a tough, well-coached team, he knows the flow of the game and how the two teams attacked each other would’ve been different if Togiai was healthy.

While Togiai’s senior season stat line of 14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.6 blocks per game doesn’t exactly jump off the page, he ranked in the top five of each category in the state. The 6-foot-1 swing player was a 2019 Division I first-team All-Hawaii selection and a Fab 15 honoree by the Hawaii Star-Advertiser. Despite not playing in the state final, Togiai still earned Division I All-Tournament Team honors.

To crystallize Togiai’s talent and impact on the Warriors, he was named the 2019-20 Gatorade Hawaii Boys Basketball Player of the Year, the fourth to be chosen from Kamehameha-Kapalama.

For Park, it isn’t just what Togiai physically brings to the court that sets him apart. The Warriors took part in a pre-practice shooting competition in early January that spanned three days. Once Togiai realized his head coach was keeping score to determine a winner, Park said “There was no way he was losing,” a testament to the senior’s competitive spirit.

“Christmas has an unusual combination of basketball IQ, competitiveness, leadership and unselfishness,” Park said. “He sees and understands the game so well.  He knows what we need, what his role is and what the opponent is trying to do in every situation. Chris is extremely competitive. He not only wants to win every game, he wants to win every drill and competition in practice.”

Park’s admiration for his prep star runs deep and rightfully so. After all, Togiai led Kamehameha-Kapalama to heights the program hasn’t seen in years.

Before Togiai made the varsity squad and started at point guard as a freshman, Park said the senior was an outstanding ball player for Kamehameha since middle school. The Warriors hadn’t been to a state tournament since 2012 and hadn’t been the undefeated Interscholastic League of Honolulu champion since 1992 — both of which were accomplished under Togiai’s leadership.

“He has done everything a coach could have asked for both on and off the court,” Park said. “He matured into a leader that elevated our program to heights we haven’t been in a long time. I hope our younger guys can take this experience, follow what Christmas has done and build on those successes both on and off the court.”

It seems only fitting that an athlete who took a program to new heights hopes to one day be in the sky for a living.

With Togiai’s prep career behind him, the National Honor Society member plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and train to become a commercial pilot while continuing his basketball journey.

“We’re excited to add Chris to the Embry-Riddle family,” head coach Eric Fundalewicz said in a press release. “He comes from a great winning atmosphere in both the Hawaiian State and AAU ranks and we’re excited to see the impact that he will have on Embry-Riddle in the classroom, on the court and also in the Prescott community.”

Togiai will major in aviation at the NAIA university in Prescott, Ariz., a place he believes he’ll receive the best education for his career path.

“ERAU offers the best Aviation program in the nation,” Togiai said in a press release. “Coach E, the staff and the players made me feel welcomed. It just felt like a great fit.”

On the court, Togiai has all the tools to flourish at the next level.

“His strength and versatility, to go along with his skills, will allow him to play many different positions on the floor,” Fundalewicz said.

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