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Kitashima comes full circle in coaching journey


Little did Thia Palakiko know just what she would be gaining when she walked into the gym for volleyball tryouts as a Waianae High School freshman back in the fall of 1980.

Palakiko was brand new to the sport — one that her older sister Sista starred in for the Seariders and later at the University of Hawaii — and put her trust in a first-year coach who was transitioning to volleyball from the football field.

His name was Dan Kitashima.

Together the duo led Waianae to back-to-back OIA title matches in 1982 and '83.

"We always got there, but we could only do what we could do," Palakiko said in a recent sit-down interview.

What those teams accomplished on the court, however, pales in comparison to what Palakiko holds closest to her heart: a lifetime of friendship.

That was evident this past May, when Palakiko's mother, Joy, passed away and a slew of Thia's former high school teammates showed up to the memorial service.

"They were all there and coach Dan was there, too," said Palakiko, who spent one year at UH-Manoa before transferring to UH-Hilo, where she helped the Vulcans win a D-II national title. "He was amazed that even though it was all those years ago, how we still have that support and that family-like feel from that team because he saw everybody there."

Kitashima described the moment almost serendipitously.

"It was almost like a reunion. There were maybe eight or nine girls from my original team," he said. "It was just something totally awesome. To know that they still have a love for each other, a real deep love for a friendship that developed between us was still there and that was special."

It was there that Kitashima, who was set to retire in June after 43 years in the DOE, had an idea. Or rather, his wife, Mervlyn, did.

"We all knew that Waianae was looking for a volleyball coach. Last year they asked me to coach, but I didn't want to, but when he saw everybody there, he was like, ‘This is a sign. We need to do it,' " Palakiko said. "His wife said, ‘Only if you do it, Thia, then he can go,' but when he saw how our team is still a family, he wanted to come over here and help our program at Waianae."

After starting out his coaching career with four years at Waianae, Kitashima took a position as an assistant at his alma mater, Kamehameha. A few years after that, the 1971 graduate ascended to head coach at the Kapalama campus.

"I already had a belief and I started believing in what I was doing. By then I knew that this system worked and once you know something works, you tend to do it more. You believe in something, you know something and now it becomes a part of you. This is what you do and when you do it well and you do it hard enough, I think that's when you become what you want to become," Kitashima said.

Kitashima went on to lead the Warriors to seven state championships in a span of nine years and in the process, cemented his spot amongst the sport's coaching luminaries.

"Fortunately, I had some really good players up at Kamehameha. We were successful, I guess," Kitashima said.

It's actually quite the understatement.

During the 1999 season — Kitashima's last year of coaching — the Warriors went undefeated and were ranked No. 1 in the country. Eleven of the 13 players on the roster that year were seniors and all 11 went on to play collegiately. Four of them were rated amongst the top 50 players in the nation.

Among those that consider Kitashima to be a mentor is current Warriors coach Chris Blake.

"I was actually coaching on the boys side at Kamehameha for a bit and then he just came up to me. When our season was done on the boys side, I would come over on the girls side for basically their states prep. I was just another body playing against the kids and from there it evolved into coaching. I got to be his number two for his last three seasons and being able to work with him on a day-to-day basis, seeing what he was doing and just his drive was definitely one thing that affected me," Blake said. "Working with somebody who has that kind of desire and work ethic definitely rubbed off on me and kind of makes us who we are on our staff today."

Blake, who has nine state championships to his own name, says he owes a lot of Kitashima.

"He was a great mentor. I know it sounds cliché, but he was definitely like a dad to me. To learn with him was amazing and looking at it in the blink of an eye and reflecting on it, it's hard to believe it's been 18 years or so since we were coaching together," Blake said.

Because Kitashima had just retired from the DOE, he wasn't allowed to take a paid coaching position with the Seariders, but that was just fine with him. He was in it to support Palakiko, who had done the same for him so many times over the years.

"Thia was at my retirement when I retired from Kamehameha, so we've been in touch throughout the years and she's just turned into a great, great person," Kitashima said. "It's worked out great. Thia is the actual head coach and I'm the volunteer coach and I'm fine with that. I know what coaches get paid, so it's not about that. It's more about just coming back and giving back and it's a good way to go out. I think, you know, there's no better way to go out than to come back where I first began, so it's full circle."

You see, Kitashima is on a one-year deadline.

Dan Kitashima is flanked by his wife of 46 years, Mervlyn, and son, Shon, one of their seven children. CJ Caraang | SL    Purchase image

"His wife said, ‘I'll give you one year to build a program and go help Thia and develop Thia to take over the program,' so he fully committed himself and he's sharing everything," Waianae athletic director Kekoa Kaluhiokalani said. "He could write a book with everything that he knows. In fact, he has a book that he shares with players and coaches and just shares everything. He stepped up for us and all the kids and we're all so thankful to have him in the program."

Palakiko wouldn't want it any other way. Like Kitashima, she went on to become an educator and currently serves as a math teacher at Waianae.

"Dan was my math teacher in the 10th grade, algebra and geometry," Palakiko said. "I thought I was not a very good student, I thought I was not very smart and I just tried my best, but he made it fun and I really enjoyed learning. After that I loved math and when I went to college I minored in math. I wanted to work with kids and I wanted to be a math teacher because I figured I could make it fun, too. I could make it fun because I didn't like it, but he made me like it."

Like Blake, Palakiko continues to hold Kitashima in high regard.

"He was just like a father figure because growing up I didn't have a dad, so he was my father figure. He was a role model and he was always positive, always encouraging us to go to school, get an education and he was just a positive role model in my life," Palakiko said.

A special moment for Kitashima came in the preseason, when Waianae took part in the Hawaii Volleyball Invitational, hosted by Kamehameha.

"It had been a long time and it brought back a lot of memories," Kitashima said of stepping into Kekuhaupio Gymnasium. "Chris does a great job. He coached under me and it's good to see that he's kept the program going. I humbly like to say that in someway I had a part in the building of that program."

The Seariders and Warriors met in the tournament semifinals. The hosts swept the best-of-three match, but Blake couldn't help but be impressed by what Kitashima has already accomplished with his team.

"You can see the fingerprints of what he is doing to that team," Blake said. "It's instilling that workmanlike mentality to that Waianae group, which is showing in their play, for sure. I know it's still early in the season, but you can see by the way he's doing it and getting the kids to do, you could definitely tell that it was a Dan Kitashima-coached team."

A strong preseason has parlayed into a 4-0 start in the OIA's Western Division for the Seariders, who are ranked sixth in this week's ScoringLive/Hawaiian Electric Power Rankings.

"This team, they might not have the most talent, but they play like they're as talented as anybody because the synergy is different. It's a totally different feeling," said Palakiko, now in her second go-around as Waianae head coach.

Palakiko, a mother of two, said she found herself emulating Kitashima in her first stint at her alma mater and still today.

"Oh yeah, very much," she said. "It was always about team work and working together and that ‘we is greater than me,' so that's what he taught and that's what I've always taught. I used what he taught to coach my girls for the 10 years that I coached."

Kitashima credits legendary Waianae football coach Larry Ginoza for "teaching me a lot about coaching and how you prepare and develop a team and a program.

"I didn't know anything and I had to start my belief in how to coach volleyball and what he taught me was where my belief began," Kitashima said.

Of course, times have certainly changed since Kitashima started out on his coaching journey, but he always draws it back to two things with his players.

"Circumstance and opportunity," he repeats.

"I always remind the players that there's probably a whole lot of great players out there, but because of the circumstances and opportunities, they're unable to go and to be grateful to your parents or whoever it was that gave you the opportunity that, because of your circumstance, you're able to be here and represent, because there's probably a greater player out there that just didn't have those things," Kitashima said.

Heipua Tautuaa, a junior outside hitter for the Seariders, said Kitashima brings a different approach to the game.

"We work a lot on basics and that works a lot for our team. Last year we just worked on hitting hard and stuff, but he wants us to be a more defensive team than a hitting team," said Tautuaa, whose prior knowledge of Kitashima was that "he won a lot of state championships at Kamehameha, which we were really excited about because we're hoping that we can win one, too."

Kitashima's work ethic will keep him from striving for nothing less, but it's far from the most important thing to the 65-year old Kitashima.

"We've been really focusing on being a good teammate, being a good person and I think that's coming," he said. "You know, in Waianae the kids learn to survive. It's a different way of life. It's a hard life, but they only know how to survive and so it's ‘me first, protect me,' and so being able to let those guards down to think of the next person and to give of yourself to that next person, to me that's huge and that's always been the case. I want these girls to build a belief in themselves and know that there's a next level that they can play at and if that's what you want to do, you need to make good choices."

Volleyball has always been a family affair for Kitashima. Mervlyn, who Dan calls ‘his counselor,' along with Shon — one of their seven children — are never too far.

"I'm fortunate to have my son, who's coaching with me for how many years, so he comes and helps," Kitashima said.

Kaluhiokalani recalls when when Mervlyn would catch the bus from Pearl City with "three of four of their kids, who were young at the time, and come down to the Waianae," he said. "And then after the games, they would all catch the bus back with him."

Dan and Mervlyn, a 1973 alumna of Kamehameha, got married when she was a junior in high school and he had just graduated. In their 46 years of marriage, the family has grown to include 18 grandchildren and their first great-grandchild earlier this year.

"I didn't win any of those championships without her. When I was coaching at Kamehameha I had my wife, I had my two daughters and I had my son and the rest of my kids, when they could, were always there; That's how I've always coached," Kitashima said.

Regardless of how the 2018 season plays out for the Seariders, Kitashima's legacy has long been etched into the annals of Hawaii prep volleyball.

"He built a dynasty at Kamehameha Schools, but it's not just about talent; It's about being a team and he has this way of just building teams and totally instilling the importance of teamwork and synergy. It's not always about the win," Palakiko said. "He doesn't care how talented you are; it's about character, like how you win a game shows character, but how you lose shows it all."

Blake counts himself among the proud apprentices that Kitashima has produced over the years.

"I'm so pleased for that Waianae program. They're definitely getting a great guy and a great guide to show them a path," Blake said.

"Coaches can only show kids what to do, the kids have to walk it, but the thing with coach Dan is although they've got to walk it on their own, he and his staff are always side-by-side with them to guide them along the way. It was an honor to be able to learn from such a great mentor and I'm definitely a part of his coaching tree and hopefully I'm doing proud by him by what we're doing on a day-to-day basis."

To be sure, Kitashima will not be judging the Seariders' success on wins and losses when its all said and done.

"Every day is a new success. I see them doing things, believing in what we say and knowing that it's them and not us. To see their growth, to see their excitement, to see their enthusiasm and hopefully to see them go to the next level — at least, have the desire — but to be the best that they can be no matter what they do," said Kitashima, who circled the conversation back to Joy Palakiko's memorial this summer.

"It was so special. You know, if I'm still around and I come back in 10 years and these girls that we're coaching now have this kind of connection, I would be so happy," Kitashima said. "If they're successful, providing for their families, to me that's the success."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].




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