Talk Story: Alton Shimatsu

WAIMEA — Alton Shimatsu graduated from Waimea High School in 2007.

He played boys volleyball for three years at the school and won a Kauai Interscholastic Federation championship his senior year.

After a one-year stint studying at Hawaii Community College on the Big Island, he made his way back home to the Garden Isle. Shortly after that, he found his way back to Waimea High as an assistant coach.

Shimatsu was promoted to head coach of the junior varsity team last year. Now, he’s the varsity head coach and aims to get his team back to winning a KIF title just as he did when he was a student-athlete.

Shimatsu sat down with The Garden Island during a practice at Waimea’s home gym and discussed his experiences through the sport, and his return to his alma mater.

The Garden Island: So this is your first year coaching varsity. Have you coached previously?

Alton Shimatsu: I was the JV coach last year. I’ve been around the program for about six years now as an assistant coach, a helper and stuff like that. … I’ve been an assistant for two years, and last year I was the JV head coach. This year, I’m the varsity head coach.

TGI: Since you’ve coached both, what is the difference between coaching JV and varsity?

AS: The coaching style is really different. In JV, we work more on basics and trying to develop players and teamwork. Varsity is about putting everything together — more strategies and stuff like that. … The games are way more intense, as expected at the varsity level. There’s a lot more pressure at the varsity level, too.

TGI: What was it like playing for Waimea? Is it different now compared to when you played?

AS: I’ve never really thought about it. … As a player, the game is way more intense. You’re in the moment and you cannot hear anything on the court. For me, as a coach now, it’s different because my thinking is different. As a player, you think of your position and what is your job on the court. As a coach, you think about game strategy and everything that encompasses the whole team instead of what is my job and what the guy next to me is doing.

TGI: Did you play any other sports?

AS: I played JV basketball, but that was about it. As you can tell, my passion was in volleyball. I pretty much just played that throughout high school. Never played volleyball before that. Never touched a volleyball until that JV year.

TGI: How did you get into it? Were your friends playing and they told you to try out?

AS: Actually, when I was playing basketball, Tony (Magaoay) was one of the assistant coaches for basketball and he recruited me to play volleyball. So when I came into volleyball season, I played one basketball season after that and I said that I liked to play volleyball instead.

TGI: During the three years played in high school, how did you guys do?

AS: My first year was the first year they started naming JV KIF champs. That year, we went undefeated. When I was in high school, we didn’t have Island School in the mix. So, we always had the bye day, which was a big help. We don’t have it now. It’s just back-to-back games.

My junior year, that was the year Kapaa won states. So, there was competition in the KIF that year.

Our senior year, we went to states. We won KIF. Our record was 7-1. That one loss was the devastating because it was our Senior Night. My JV coach and varsity coach was Tony, too. The coaching style, from what I learned from him, is having that connection between the coach and the boys makes a big difference. The attitude of the game is what really helps. Just want to help them to perform to the best of their abilities.

TGI: Are there other things that you copied from your old coach? Or are there things you tried doing differently?

AS: The thing that I took away from him was having that intensity during practice. You just go to keep encouraging (them). I try not to get down on them too much because that kills momentum, and it kills spirits and all that stuff. … That is what I learned from him — to be encouraging.

TGI: Are you a coach who believes if practices are hard, the games are easy?

AS: Yeah. That’s them main thing I try to tell them — the harder practice gets, when game time comes, you’re ready. You’re ready to experience the hard parts of the game.

TGI: So you graduated in ‘07. Did you get into coaching right after you graduated?

AS: Tony’s name is going to come up a lot. Through this sport, he was the person who coached me from the ground up. He also coached me towards being a coach. … After I went to college and came back, he called me. He kept calling me, “Hey, come and help me.” So, I came to a couple of practices. I was like, “I just want to relax. I don’t want to do anything after work. I just want to cruise.”

The next year, it was the same thing, “Come back. I need your help.” So I came back for maybe a month. Then he said, “OK. I’m going to take JV. I need you to be my assistant.” I got to stay now, so I stayed.

Then he moved back up to varsity. He said that someone else is going to be the JV coach, but you’re going to help them. So I helped them. Then the next year, they offered me the head coaching job for the JV. I was like, “Why not?” I’ve already been around the program and started to build relationships with these boys.

My first year as an assistant coach, (seniors Bobby Oliver, Ryan Lomongo and Howard Kanahele) were my freshmen. They were the first boys that I coached. That’s what kind of makes this year special. They were the boys that I started coaching with.

TGI: Is it hard maintaining that balance between being a coach and a friend to them?

AS: At the JV level, it was really hard. If I scolded them, they would get shell-shocked. At this level, at the beginning of the season we already established when we step into the gym, it’s coach and player. You got to listen to me, and I’m going to do what I can for you. Outside, we joke around and have fun.

That’s what I like about my boys. We know the boundaries and when it’s time to listen. We respect each other for each other’s position.

TGI: Let’s backtrack a bit. Where did you go to college?

AS: I went to (Hawaii Community College) on the Big Island. I was there a little over a year, and studied Hawaiian Studies. Then I came back home, and took electronics (at Kauai Community College) for a semester. Then I found a job, so now I’m working. I work for Pioneer as a tractor operator.

TGI: Can you talk about transitioning from JV to varsity?

AS: Well, the varsity coaches from last year, they were my coaches in high school. (Enoka Karratti) was the JV coach when I was playing varsity. That’s what kept me in — knowing how much effort they put into the program.

The bond between the coaching staff is what kept me (going). I wanted to give back to them.

When they asked me to take the varsity position, I wanted to do it because I wanted to keep their program running. Since I learned everything about volleyball from them, what better way to keep it going?

TGI: If you don’t mind me asking, why did Coach Karratti step away from coaching?

AS: I guess you could say it was personal reasons. He has a family. He has a kid now, which is totally understandable. Now that I’m the head coach, it’s a lot of work behind the scenes. I told Tony and Enoka that I appreciated everything they did for me when I was in high school. Nobody actually knows how much time that goes into coaching. After practice, you go home and watch videos and strategize. Then there’s stuff (you do) to take care of the boys — their schoolwork, the food booths, trips and all that stuff.

TGI: With coaching on top of a full-time job, how are you handling everything?

AS: Tony told me, “If you got a strong household, then you’re going to be a successful coach.” I’m lucky my girlfriend supports me with all this stuff. She understands everything. She’s here at every game. She comes to practice. She supports me through all of this. What Tony said was right. Without support like that, I wouldn’t be able to do this.

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