Talk Story: Kapule Kaona

Hours are long during the season, as is the case with many coaches on Kauai.

For Kapaa High School’s varsity boys volleyball coach Kapule Kaona, it’s no different.

“Every day, I get up about 5 a.m. Right after work, straight to the gym. I’ll be at the gym until about 7-7:30 for practice,” Kaona said. “For game nights, especially if we’re at Waimea, it’s long days. Match nights, I’ll get home maybe around 9 to 10. … That’s how it is. Whenever we’re in season, I know that’s what the schedule is going to be like. I just prepare myself for those three months of just long days.”

During the season, though, he doesn’t mind the long hours. In fact, he looks forward to them.

His varsity squad at Kapaa High is currently 6-0 this season and is in good shape to repeat as Kauai Interscholastic Federation champs.

At the helm, Kapaa has won two KIF titles. At states, his teams have placed fifth in 2014 and third in 2016.

Kaona sat down with The Garden Island and talked about his hectic work schedule, his ties with the sport of volleyball and being at the helm of the Warriors program.

Does it get taxing after a while? Those long hours?

Actually, it doesn’t. The volleyball part, that’s my motivation. That’s my sanctuary, you know? It doesn’t seem like work. I guess that’s why it’s OK. It doesn’t seem as long. And I’m excited for that. It doesn’t make it too bad.

Where do you work?

I work at the Kauai Beach Resort. I’m a sales coordinator over there, so I work in sales.

I’ve been there about three years now, but I’ve always been in the hotels industry. I’ve been in the industry for about 12-13 years.

Why hotels?

I just started that when I was young. I went to school to study travel industry management. I’ve always liked traveling, so I think that was the hook. When I was young, me and my parents traveled quite a bit. We went to the continental U.S., to different states, and within the islands. So, I’ve always had a curiosity for staying in hotels and airlines and visiting places.

And, why not? It’s Hawaii tourism industry, which is good. Yeah, I like it and I enjoy it.

So far, so good this season. If you can pinpoint something, what’s been going well with the team?

I think the positive thing is experience. I think that’s the advantage we have. We’ve had these boys since they were freshmen. I think for the most part, we’re the most senior-heavy team, the most experienced team in the KIF. I know Kauai High, Waimea and Island School, they’re fairly young. I think that’s the one thing that’s gotten us to this point.

Many of these boys that are seniors, they are returnees. They’ve had the experience to play at the varsity level from last year and also at the state level. With that also comes a lot more knowledge of the game, and experience playing at the state level with teams other than the KIF. I think that bodes well for us.

When preparing for states, for teams you don’t really know, how do you go about it?

The thing is when you don’t know an opponent is to focus on your side of the net and what you need to do. When you get to know teams, you know players and tendencies. The great thing about that is you can start working your team, your offense or your defense, based around the other team’s tendencies.

When playing with teams from Oahu and the outer islands, you don’t know those tendencies. The only thing you can focus on is your side of the net and try to perfect that the best you can. So, there’s not really one thing you got to focus on. It’s the entire game you got to focus on.

How long have you been varsity coach at Kapaa?

I think my first season as the varsity coach was the 2013 season.

How did that opportunity open?

Prior to being the head coach, I was the assistant coach with the boys varsity team. I was an assistant to Matt Gonsalves, who’s the athletic director’s brother. I want to say he was the head coach for about three years, and we (he and his brother and current assistant coach Nui Kaona) were his assistants at that time.

Matt stepped down because his kids were coming to the age where he needed to be more involved with their sports and their activities and school. Family took priority, so he took the backseat. So, that opportunity came. It was offered to see if I wanted to be the head coach. It was something I wanted to do. I’ve always been passionate about the sport. So yeah, that was my first season.

Before coaching, how were you involved with volleyball? Was it something you played when you were a kid?

It was through my parents that volleyball stuck with me. Both of my parents, they played college volleyball. To take it back, my father played at Kapaa High School. He’s a Kapaa High grad. My mother played at (Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama). She’s a Kamehameha graduate. After their high school days, they played at the collegiate level. At that time, it was called CCH, or Church College of Hawaii, which is now BYU-Hawaii. They both played there.

After, they both moved here and started a family. They both actually started coaching at Kapaa High School. My dad was the boys coach, and my mom was the girls coach. Basically, volleyball stuck because we were always in the gym as kids. We were gym rats. We were at school, then were at the gym for hours and hours around the sport. So, we grew up in the sport from our parents.

I later went to Kamehameha as well, and I played at Kapalama. After that, I went to BYU-Provo for college. I did not play volleyball for college. … I never played collegiate level, but always had a passion for the game. And yeah, eventually got into coaching here.

What position did you play in high school?

I was a setter.

Did you think of being a walk-on at BYU?

They do have that option of walking on, and I did consider that option. Looking at the options of what was available — you have a 5-foot-10 setter, myself, versus a 6-foot-5 setter who has the same capable skills as I do. 6-foot-5, you know? You can’t coach height. That was the challenge.

And during those years that I was there, BYU was No. 1 ranked. A lot of the players that were on that team eventually went on to play in the Olympics — the 2000 Olympic team and the 2004 Olympic team. They were really, really great. I think at that point in time, playing at the collegiate level, I’ll just take a backseat.

Both of your parents coached at Kapaa. So, there’s a bit of a legacy thing here.

Oh, definitely. Had I not gone to Kamehameha, I would have been a student at Kapaa High School. Even though I didn’t graduate at Kapaa, there’s a lot of pride that I have for that school. My dad went to school there. Both my parents coached there. All of my friends went to school there. That was just my identity with the island. So, yes. I guess the legacy continues on. From my parents, and then down on to me.

I think with coaching is that, as a player, you think you know the sport and you know what to do. (You’d think) coaching would be easy because you played the sport before, which is so not the case. You sometimes learn like, “Wow, it’s a lot more difficult.” There’s obviously a lot more involved with coaching than just being a player.

What are your philosophies as a coach? Are you more of a players’ coach, or are you more of a disciplinarian?

Very structured and organized. From our practices, from everything that we do, it’s very structured. That’s just how I am in my personal life and in my career life. I think that’s why it carries over. The boys know what my expecations are. I’m very upfront about things. I’m very honest and true with them. I tell them exactly how it is, so there’s never any communication breakdown or guessing of, “OK, what is coach thinking? What does he want to do?” I let them know in advance as far as what things are going to be happening.

My whole philosophy with coaching, and I guess it’s kind of what is my gratification, my whole thing is seeing the kids grow a passion and love for the same thing I have a passion and love for. That’s the joy I get out of coaching — seeing these young men love something that I love so much, and they never knew anything about this before.

Because we have no community volleyball league for the younger ages, their first introduction for boys is when they come in as freshmen in high school around the entire island. I know there are a few clubs that have done some work with these boys. But a majority of the boys, they’re first introduced to volleyball when they’re 14.

When they come in, just to see them be interested in the sport, to learn it and then to love it, that’s what’s gratifying to me. That’s what gets me every single day, and that’s what motivates me to coach every day.

From your first season until now, how has the Kapaa program changed?

To give you a little more background history — when we first started as assistant coaches, when Matt first started, we lost every single game that year. And then we only won one game, which was the last. So, we went 1-11 that season. We barely had enough boys in the gym that came out and were interested to tryout.

Moving years later, we have about 60 boys that are at tryouts. About 40-60 boys that are at tryouts now. The program has continuously grown through the years. So you go from 1-11 to where we currently are now, last year went 12-0 in the league, that just shows the growth of the program.

For the program to have turned around that quickly, to what do you attribute to that?

As far as interest of the sport, when you start to win, people will come. And I think that’s what got the boys interested, and that’s with any sport around the island. Once you start to see success, people are going to rally behind you. Whether it be the community, the school, the boys themselves, everyone is going to rally behind that. I think from an outside perspective, or a player’s perspective or the community’s perspective, the popularity or growth of the sport has definitely happened through the success.

Everybody wants to be part of something successful, part of something great. Kids want to be part of that. They see when a team win a championship, they want to be part of it and know what it feels like. They’re going to show interest. Parents are going to be more involved. That’s just natural for any sport or any team around the island, or state, whatever it may be.

As far as what it’s gotten to now as a program, I don’t want to take credit for it. I think just the interest is growing. Part of the success we’re having now was the training in the offseason.

A lot of that has to do with beach volleyball. A lot of these boys now have played a lot of beach volleyball from last season to this season. So, just playing more year-round. There’s a few adults that have started some boys clubs. There are more people involved with it and more year-round playing, as opposed to just playing in the season. I would attribute some of that success to that as well.

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