AGANA HEIGHTS, Guam — So close, but yet so far.

So might read the 20-ton boulder slung over the shoulders of Guam High’s boys basketball team, which the past two years has pursued the island’s and Far East tournament titles, only to fall tantalizingly short.

First, there was the sixth-place Far East finish last month at Yokota Air Base — the best in school history, but still short of the goal. Then, there’s the two consecutive Independent Interscholastic Athletic Association of Guam tournament Final Four appearances, which yielded a title-game berth last year and third place just a week ago.

But don’t for a minute think coach Joe Taitano would hide behind excuses, such as how he keeps good players only a couple of years, while others might have them all four high school years.

“I can’t think of the variables,” said Taitano, who entered the just-completed season after losing veterans D’Andre Weaver and Guy Mosley to transfers. “I have to get the kids, work with them and be competitive. I can’t make excuses.”

One area where Taitano did get fortunate was the player who replaced Weaver, his point guard, a year ago.

Jayson Brunson, a junior transfer and veteran of AAU ball in Virginia, stepped into Weaver’s shoes and became an instant star, leading the Panthers (19-5 overall) in rebounds (9), assists (9) and steals (3) per game and finishing second in points (13).

“He doesn’t score a lot of points, but he makes everybody around him better,” said Taitano, who has coached on Guam for three decades and ranks Brunson with the best he’s seen. “He controls the game. He can do just about anything. For somebody to come along like him, it’s a gift.”

Sporting quickness and power, Brunson sees the whole floor on the fly, in transition — something most players can do only while stationary, Taitano said.

“There are things he does that I didn’t even ‘read’ on the floor in transition,” Taitano said. “And he can thread a needle at 50 feet away. This guy is just incredible.”

Brunson terms his ability to see the floor something that “comes naturally. I know where somebody is going to be before they get there. Put the ball where it needs to be, and they do the rest.”

“He can do everything,” senior Paul Floyd said. “He can dribble, he can score, he can pass, he can play defense. He’s just a big-time player. And he’s a good teammate.”

Brunson said that’s the key to success: the team around him.

“If you don’t have a team around you, then you can’t make things work on the court,” Brunson said. “It revolves around me and the other four players on the court. We work together as a team, and we get the job done. I just play my game, my position. I know where everybody is every time and everybody else works around it.”

Brunson said he expects to graduate at Guam High — his seventh high school since entering his freshman year, he said.

“Right now, the focus is to maximize his potential and have him help the team out in so many ways,” Taitano said.

Despite his brave pronouncements about keeping and losing players, Taitano admits he wonders at times what could have been with any number of teams in his five years at Guam High.

“I’ve tried looking ahead, and those years I’m often disappointed, thinking all right, this guy’s coming back, and then all of a sudden I lose all my players,” he said.

Taitano expects to lose only two seniors — “We should have a nice squad next year,” Brunson said — and Taitano will enter his sixth campaign at Guam High “dry and hungry” to do what’s best for the school, he said.

“And I think the team is very, very hungry. … I remind them of what’s happened the last two years and how I really want them dancing at the big house at the end of the season.”

For that to happen, it will take a total team effort, Brunson said.

“Like coach says, offense wins games, but defense wins championships,” Brunson said, adding that in their playoff losses, “we didn’t play to our tempo. We can play harder and we should have played harder.”

The time to look ahead has begun, Taitano said. “The season’s over. We have to move forward and look for better things next season.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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