MASON - By Google Map, 7-foot center Sage Tolentino and his family have traveled 4,421 miles from the Maryknoll School in Honolulu, Hawaii to be part of the Big Blue community at Hamilton High School.
Basketball and his remarkable size for a teenager have allowed him to travel the world in competition. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports in Hawaii and the tourism industry declined to affect his father's job, Tolentino and family were looking for other opportunities.
In Hawaii, Sage met 7-foot-2 Kai Sotto of the Philippines who was represented by East West Private, a management group that helps families through basketball. Sotto is 18-years-old and is training to go to the NBA G-League, bypassing college. He is projected by some to be an NBA second-round pick.
Sotto moved to the area and the Tolentino family soon followed. Both trained with Griffin Elite of Northern Kentucky but are now working with Dante Harlan of Ignition out of the Prasco complex in Mason. Harlan is a former Mount Notre Dame girls coach who also trains some of the top girls prep players in the region like MND's K.K. Bransford and Laila Phelia with the AAU Cincinnati Angels, a program funded by the Arington family that runs Prasco and the adjacent pristine baseball facility, Prasco Park. The Cincinnati Reds utilized the ballfields during their shortened 2020 pandemic season.
Making the move
The East West Private connection serves only in an advisory capacity for the Tolentino family who have moved to the area out of pocket and were granted eligibility in a letter sent from OHSAA Director of Compliance Kristin Ronai Dec. 3, 2020.
Hamilton High School is roughly 30 minutes from Sage's morning training.
"I love it here," Tolentino said."It was the right decision to move for the opportunities I have here. I like my teammates and coaches and I think Hamilton is going to do good this season."
Grant and Becky Tolentino cite COVID-19 as the reason for the mainland move with the shutdown of high school sports and the economy in Hawaii. They are also grateful for the direction of Harlan at Ignition who is bullish on his young, lanky student.
During a two-hour workout, Tolentino dunked with little effort and won a 3-point shooting contest with the two other players participating in Harlan's Wednesday workout.
At Hamilton under coach Kevin Higgins, Tolentino has faced tougher defenses than those he experienced in Oahu. At morning sessions at Ignition, Harlan sees the upside in the 16-year-old.
"I think the biggest thing you notice is his movement as a 7-footer, the way he lowers his base and how he's able to move his feet being that tall," Harlan said. "The most impressive thing has been his work ethic. I'm hard on him. I challenge him. He's accepted it and it's really about what's best for him in terms of being able to play at the next level."
As a sophomore at Maryknoll, Tolentino led the Spartans to a Hawaii state championship averaging 13 points, 10 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. His Ohio prep average is 10.6 points per game with 3.9 rebounds and a GMC-leading 2.8 blocks per game. His best game was 23 points and 11 rebounds against Colerain and he also netted 23 points Jan. 15 against Oak Hills.
However, he hasn't played nor dressed for the Big Blue since Jan. 19 at Mason.
A possible fork in the road
On Jan. 22, Hamilton athletic director Bill Stewart resigned when the OHSAA found one of the Big Blue players ineligible over a residency issue. That player was identified by The Enquirer as E.J. Kapihe, a junior 6-foot-4 player also from Hawaii who followed a similar route as Tolentino when the pandemic shut down sports on the islands.
Since then, Hamilton lost to Lakota West, then has reeled off three straight wins, all by three points, against Lakota East, Northwest and Mason.
Tolentino and Kapihe have been with the team in support since Jan. 22. Tolentino likes the area, is adjusting to the cold and would like to return to the floor.
"Put it up to God's hands," Tolentino said. "I definitely want to get back to the team."
Upon their initial move this summer, Tolentino was taking classes online at Maryknoll back in Honolulu while doing his Ignition training. When the time difference became a burden, he enrolled at Hamilton. Eventually, the family met with former AD Stewart, coach Higgins and others.
Tolentino's day begins with the morning workouts in Mason, then online classes from Hamilton, an afternoon basketball practice with the Big Blue, then back home for more online classes. It's lather, rinse, repeat from there.
The Tolentino family had a temporary residence in the area and bid on several Hamilton district houses. Wednesday night, they were able to close on a home. Grant and Becky Tolentino have Ohio driver's licenses and Grant, formerly a director of engineering at a Hawaii hotel plans to open a Hawaiian restaurant in Hamilton.
"He's cooked it for many people while we've been here and everyone says there's no food in Ohio that's anything close to what they just ate," Becky Tolentino said. "We thought maybe this is what we're meant to do here."
Loyal church-goers, they are relying on faith. Grant Tolentino has also agreed to be Hamilton's boys volleyball coach. He coached the sport previously and was a letterman at the University of Hawaii. The Tolentinos have been told Sage would be eligible to play in spring as boys volleyball is not sanctioned by the OHSAA.
OHSAA Senior Director of Communications Tim Stried confirmed Wednesday there are two issues now at Hamilton, although only one has had a ruling. Hamilton administrators are working with OHSAA compliance on the matter in terms of any additional information that may need to be provided.
"The Executive Director’s Office can confirm it is continuing to work collaboratively with administrators at Hamilton High School to determine the athletic eligibility of two basketball players moving forward," OHSAA's Ronai emailed Thursday. "At this point in time, there have been no additional formal rulings on either athlete's eligibility. New information has been presented to the Executive Director’s Office which is now being examined to determine the eligibility of the athletes moving forward."
As of Thursday evening, a virtual meeting between the parents, school officials and the OHSAA was planned.
"I guess there was some documentation that the school administration had missed, but we've corrected that and we're just waiting for the district to release Sage to play," Grant Tolentino said.
A possible explanation for hesitancy at Hamilton could be to avoid further penalties. Hamilton was 8-4 when Tolentino last played Jan. 19 in a loss to Mason. The day of AD Stewart's resignation and the first OHSAA ruling was Jan. 22, a loss to Lakota West which then put them at 0-13 officially with the forfeitures for using an ineligible player. Their recent three-game win streak (minus Tolentino) included victories over top GMC teams Lakota East and Mason upping their record to 3-13.
Had Tolentino played in those games and the OHSAA ruled negatively, Hamilton could also be stripped of those victories as well as any potential postseason victories. Obviously, should the OHSAA rule again in Tolentino's favor, all victories since Jan. 22 would remain and Kevin Higgins could add a 7-foot shot-blocker to the arsenal again.
Despite the struggle to return to the Hamilton floor, the work on the hardwood with Harlan continues mornings at Prasco. Tolentino has been committed to Auburn and Bruce Pearl since October.
"I think it's the perfect fit for me," Tolentino said. "They really interact with me. They're strong Christians and believers and I really like that. All glory to God for placing me at Auburn."
Kentucky, Kansas, Cincinnati and Hawaii were among the other schools expressing interest in Sage. Auburn's Pearl offered him via Zoom and the family plans a visit when time and the pandemic allow.
With the commitment, he doesn't necessarily need high school ball but would like the competition and challenge he's received since his move. The family's move was initially granted under Transfer Bylaw 4-7-2, Exception 1 which states the transfer was necessary because of the family move to a residence in a different school district. Grant and Becky Tolentino have sworn such in an affidavit.
"We just feel blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity that was given to us," Grant Tolentino said. "We look forward to seeing Sage play more."