Wright On: Hilo pioneer Sunahara gets his due

  • West Virginia photo Hilo's Reed Sunahara, the women's volleyball coach of at West Virginia the past four seasons, will be inducted into the Big Island Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 3

If we had a chance to sit down and discuss the big issues with Reed Sunahara, possibly the most accomplished all-around athlete to ever come out of Hilo, there is a very good chance that, at some point, he would tell a young, athletic person to dream big.

Sunahara always did that, whether it was baseball, basketball or volleyball, but we all understand that our goals don’t always work out the way we dreamed.

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Dream again, he might have said.

One thing Sunahara never dreamed about was the Big Island Sports Hall of Fame, but there he is, inducted among the all-time greats.

“Big, big surprise,” he said of the recognition. “I never played for that, back in high school and college I just loved the sports, loved the competition and the team feeling, and that was it. I always wanted more, but I never thought about this, it’s humbling.”

These days Sunahara is the successful coach of the West Virginia University women’s volleyball team, a group that had been up and down, mostly the latter, but showed some improvement in the final two years for former coach Jill Kramer, who then accepted a similar role at Texas Christian when most of those WVU players graduated.

Sunahara came from Buffalo, where he spent one year before the WVU offer in 2015. Prior to that he was the assistant coach of the U.S. National Team after working for 14 years at Cincinnati where he developed a professional friendship with basketball coach Bob Huggins, one of those who recommended him for his current post.

After five years, Kramer built the Mountaineers into a 36-27 record her last two seasons. Now, and after four years, Sunahara has them at 32-32 the last two seasons (49-74 over all), and holds the distinction of coaching them to their first National Invitational Volleyball Championships in 27 years at the end of the 2017-18 season. They reached the semifinals.

This is a long haul, building a national powerhouse volleyball team in West Virginia, about the same level of challenge as building a paddling power in Morgantown, W. Va.

His path suggests anything is possible.

Sunahara always wanted to be a basketball player, and who could blame him? He grew up in the time of coach John Wooden’s dynasty at UCLA and was mesmerized. He wanted to go to UCLA and play on that same court he used to watch on television.

“I was all about basketball,” Sunahara said recently in a telephone interview, “I remember staying up late to watch UCLA and Notre Dame, and a lot of those great games. It would be midnight or something, and I’d be up watching, had to see every minute.”

But for an active kid, basketball alone wasn’t enough to fill you up for 12 months. He played varsity basketball at Hilo High School from 1978-81 and was the Big Island Interscholastic Federation player of the year as a junior and a senior, the same two years he was named to the statewide basketball first team.

As a Viking baseball player, Sunahara was better than most, having been named MVP on various youth league teams, being named all-BIIF as a senior and selected as a pitcher on the USA Goodwill Team that traveled to Japan in 1981.

Still not enough for this guy. As a sophomore, he started playing volleyball, which you might consider his “third love.”

“I played a lot of baseball and basketball, and took up volleyball because it was fun,” he said. “You always take it seriously when you’re playing, but honestly, I thought I might have a shot at basketball or baseball.”

Truthfully, had Sunahara never played volleyball for whatever reason, he may well have found a way to professional baseball or basketball, but it would likely have been at lower levels. He was a good-sized volleyball player at 6-foot-4, but a little undersized for major college basketball.

As it happened, he simply hadn’t realized his best sport was volleyball, but his high school coaches, the Big Island teaching legend Elroy Osorio and others pointed him in the right direction.

They were smart enough to get Sunahara and his teams in various high school and offseason volleyball tournaments in California where coaches always sought players back in the day. They still do that, but these days, internet videos, online testimonials and other finger-tip resources make recruiting a lot easier.

It was tournaments, junior nationals, other mainland events that attracted attention, and when UCLA and coach Bruce Cates were interested, Sunahara was already sold on the Bruins.

His college career was so rare, it was reserved only for a selected few, in any sport. From 1982-84, the Bruins won three consecutive national championships — they have 19 in all these days — which included two perfect seasons, 29-0 in ’82 and 31-0 in ’84, and a combined 94-4 record.

Oh yes, he was a two-time All-America selection as well, one of the nation’s most outstanding power hitters, the one player coach Cates built his squad around.

But no, it didn’t come easily, despite the numbers.

He used a motorcycle to get around campus and one day was struck by a car, breaking his leg. He had six operations and it still wasn’t right.

Ray Ripton wrote about it in the Los Angeles Times back in 1986:

“During the first six operations, surgeons inserted transverse metal rods from his knee to the ankle and put the leg in a cast. After six weeks, the cast was removed, but the leg was not straight. Another cast was put on, but the leg still was not straight after four more weeks.

“They tried pushing on it to compensate, but that didn’t work,” Sunahara said. “The leg angled to the outside. It was like having two right legs, and it hurt really bad.

Sunahara had to have a seventh operation, in which doctors broke the leg again, removed the transverse rods and inserted another metal rod that ran the length of the tibia, the main bone in the leg, from knee to ankle. This time the operation worked; after six more weeks in a cast, the leg was straight.

Gruesome, but real. Sunahara worked hours daily for weeks and months to get back into shape. It’s the kind of things champions do, without being told how to do it. They just go for it and he was able to complete one more year after his rehabilitation before he entered coaching.

He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant for three years (1987-89), before he became a full time assistant for the Bruins, helping coach them to three more national championships in ’87, ’89 and ’93. If you’re keeping track, that’s six national championships with which he was personally involved as either a player or coach.

When Shayne Lyons was named athletics director at WVU, his first job was to fill the suddenly vacant volleyball position following Kramer’s departure.

“I’m proud to say Reed was my first hire,” Lyons said. “I did it the old school way, I researched it on my own. I talked to people who knew volleyball better than me, I researched records, heard names and tracked their careers, and yeah, Reed was one of those names I heard.”

And one of those mentioning it was Huggins, his coach-mate at Cincinnati.

Huggins’ Mountaineers are struggling this year, but the volleyball team is on an upward trajectory.

“He’s more than just a coach,” Lyons said, “he’s passionate about this, he works as hard as anybody in the business, but most importantly, he transfers those attributes to his players.

“I didn’t know all that firsthand when I was researching, but I heard those things about Reed. In my position you have a kind of checklist when you look for a coach, probably more things on there than you might think from interest in academics to recruiting, to building a whole person and maybe a dozen other things you hope to find in a coach.

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“Reed Sunahara,” Lyons said, “checked all the boxes. We are very fortunate to have him.”

Here, we are very fortunate to simply call him one of our own.

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