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Madison Memorial junior Leilani Kapinus began her athletic career as a gymnast.

But as she continued to grow taller, her father, Lucas Kapinus, realized a change was in order. So Leilani Kapinus started playing basketball.

“As soon as he put me in it, I knew I really loved it,” she said. “I started playing basketball when I was in third grade, but in fifth grade I knew I wanted to play basketball the rest of my life and that’s why I wear No. 5.”

The No. 5 on her girls basketball uniform signifies the beginning of her journey. Where she winds up is yet to come.

But a promising path is developing for Kapinus. The 5-foot-11 guard/forward is the ninth-ranked player nationally in Dan Olson’s ESPNW HoopGurlz Super 60 rankings for the Class of 2020 and she’s already drawing droves of college coaches to games this season.

Her stock exploded nationally playing for Wisconsin Flight Elite this summer. Her scholarship offers increased from five to a coast-to-coast 22, which includes the four in-state NCAA Division I programs. Duke, Oregon and Louisville also have showed interest in Kapinus, who prefers a team playing a fast-paced style.

Madison Memorial girls basketball coach Marques Flowers first watched Kapinus play in fourth grade and said he could see during her youth days that she was an energetic, high-level athlete.

“She’s what we call ‘good clay.’ You could form her,” Flowers said about Kapinus, whose first name means “Heavenly Flower” in Hawaiian. “Her work ethic is something that has stood out. She wants to be great. She had that. And when you have that, plus her amazing athletic ability, you get a kid who is doing what she is doing at a very high level and is getting national attention.”

That attention, and her confidence, skyrocketed this past summer. She always played hard and with toughness, but possibly with too much humility, Flowers said.

“I think she figured out how good she really is and she began playing that way,” said Flowers, who believed Kapinus became more of a presence in games on the AAU circuit.

He expects that to translate into improved play this high school season from Kapinus, who averaged 14.4 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots per game last season.

“I think the Big Eight (Conference) is going to see a very different player than the last time they saw her last year,” Flowers said. “They just better be ready. She’s just at a different level from where she was last year. As a coach who is a pretty tough critic of her game, even I have to say she’s at a different place than she was the last time she played at Memorial (last year).”

Last season ended with Kapinus tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in a WIAA Division 1 regional final game in February. She returned to win the Big Eight high jump title in mid-May and finish 11th in the high jump at the Division 1 state track and field meet in June prior to her breakout summer.

Madison East girls basketball coach James Adams said Kapinus, already Memorial’s all-time leader in steals and blocked shots, will be a force to be reckoned with.

“She’s a great player that will be the primary focus on a lot of teams’ radar,” Adams said.

Kapinus said she’s prepared for opponents’ special attention.

“I have good teammates,” she said. “It will be a problem (for opponents) because we have players who can score from anywhere.”

So far, Kapinus is leading the Spartans (4-0 overall, 2-0 Big Eight) in scoring (18.5 points per game), rebounding (9.8) and steals (4.0), with junior teammate Emmoni Rankins close behind (14 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.0 steals).

Flowers has been building the Memorial program for this year and what were once young players are now juniors and seniors — making the deep Spartans the league coaches’ preseason favorite in the Big Eight after finishing fourth last season. After the bulk of the team won a state tournament title in eighth grade and brought the trophy to Flowers, the players told him a WIAA gold ball was their goal.

“That is what they are working for,” said Flowers, whose team was ranked fourth in Division 1 in this week’s WisSports.net poll. “Between our junior class and senior class, we have the horses to get it done. Obviously, there are so many things that have to fall into place for that to come to fruition. I tell them every day, ‘You are a team that can win a championship.’ But that depends on a lot of things. Some things we can control, some we can’t. We are going to focus on what we can control.”

Flowers said pressure defense will be the Spartans’ calling card, led by Kapinus and junior guard Daiysha Brown.

“Growing up, my dad would always say defense is all heart,” Kapinus said. “He would push me to play defense. It was something that came naturally to me.”

Kapinus — projected as a wing in college — plays multiple positions for the Spartans, which “allows her special insight,” Flowers said. She can defend all five spots. Whatever her role, she serves as a lockdown defender.

“Watching her as a younger player, I could see how she got after it on defense,” said Flowers, a former Beloit College player. “That was exciting to me as a defensive coach. She understood the value of defense and she played it with fire, passion and intensity.

“She can create offense for herself through her defense. It’s fun to watch. I haven’t seen someone impact the game defensively like she does since my brother Jonte (the all-time leader in steals in NCAA Division II at Winona State in Minnesota).”

Kapinus is an explosive player in transition and slashing to the basket. She said her primary areas of improvement are shooting from mid-range and beyond the 3-point arc.

The non-stop college interest in September was a surprise and somewhat overwhelming at first to Kapinus, who is now excited about her prospects. She has received guidance through the years from her father — “he guides her and grounds her,” Flowers said — and she talks to Flowers regularly about the recruiting process.

“She has definitely earned everything that is coming now,” Flowers said. “She plays with a passion and just really enjoys the game.”

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.