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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 6, 2001

Sunahara calls Cincinnati home

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

If Reed Sunahara wanted to sneak home incognito, he couldn't have found a better disguise.

Reed Sunahara, a Hilo High graduate, is in his first year as head coach of Cincinnati's women's volleyball team.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

He left Hilo half a lifetime ago as one of Hawai'i's most celebrated athletes. He is back this week, for the Aston Imua Wahine Challenge, as the Cincinnati women's volleyball coach.

It wasn't his first choice after an All-American career at UCLA — nor second or third.

Al Scates, the legendary Bruin coach, coerced Sunahara — holding a sociology degree and no job — into helping him for six years. Fate intervened in 1993, when an assistant's position opened at Toledo, near the Ohio home of Sunahara's wife (Laura). The family now includes sons Rex, 5, and R.J., 1.

Sunahara coached the women there, then moved to Cincinnati five years ago to assist former Wahine Laura Phillips. When she left last year , he took over.

"This (career) wasn't my first choice," Sunahara admits. "Maybe now it would be. After coaching guys for so long, I just thought that's what I wanted to do. I didn't know how to coach women. It's an art, it takes skill.

"I enjoy it now. It's rewarding because the sport is relatively new for them. It's still growing."

Sunahara is not, at least physically. That wasn't true when he lived here. Seemingly watered by Hilo's incessant rain, he sprouted non-stop. By his senior year, he dominated every sport he played.

"The original Flyin' Hawaiian," Scates recalled. "I heard about this guy who was all-state in baseball, basketball and volleyball. To see a Japanese guy who was 6-4 was pretty unusual. I flew out to see him and was really impressed. He had a tremendous vertical jump and hit the ball hard. I could tell he was a winner by the way he carried himself. He had an attitude. Not like some of our UCLA guys where they talk to other players, just a great, confident attitude."

That attitude evaporated the moment Sunahara landed at LAX in 1981. He was a "skinny little kid" on a team of future Olympians, in a place that was Hilo's polar opposite.

"That was a concern," Scates said. "It was quite a culture shock, let's face it. It was a culture shock for the boys who came from Punahou, and Reed was from Hilo High."

Sunahara shivered, wore sweats in practice and soaked up the atmosphere. Surrounded by the star power of Karch Kiraly, Ricci Luyties and Doug Partie, Sunahara won NCAA championships his first three years, and somehow managed to make Scates "remember my name."

Scates, who still keeps in touch, actually remembered his vertical jump. He called Sunahara the "best outside hitter in the country in 1984," and the "gutsiest" two years later, after a motorcycle accident fractured his left leg in five places.

"When I tried to get up, my leg stayed and my body moved," Sunahara recalled. "I passed out."

Sunahara lost a foot off his amazing vertical, and nearly lost his leg.

"That made me realize there was more to life than just playing," Sunahara said. "I thought I was invincible, I could play forever. ... It was the worst time of my life."

In one nightmarish moment, the Olympics and a six-figure professional career were wiped out. He played a year in Spain but, even after seven operations, his leg was never quite right. He got his degree and began to absorb the magic that has made Scates the winningest college coach in any sport.

A few years ago, mentioning Cincinnati and UCLA in the same volleyball breath would have been unthinkable. Phillips' gift for recruiting changed that, and Sunahara has continued the climb.

The Bearcats have been to the last two NCAA tournaments — their first since 1981 — and won the last two Conference USA American division titles. Last season, they set records for consecutive home victories (17) and games won (25), and half the team qualified for the conference honor roll.

Sunahara returns four all-conference players and his schedule includes 11 matches against NCAA tournament teams — three from last year's final four. Two —Hawai'i and USC — are in this tournament.

His next goal is to advance in the NCAA Tournament, and Cincinnati, inspired by its basketball prosperity, has given Sunahara its unconditional support. The Bearcats have been hitting volleyballs here every morning since Monday, and hitting Sandy Beach, the North Shore, a luau, the swap meet and Diamond Head in the afternoon. This is a trip, and a tournament, for a program serious about succeeding.

"We're getting kids we want now, that we feel will take us to the next level," Sunahara said. "We want tough kids who don't care about running through a wall and will go after every ball and not be afraid of who they play."

In other words, a team Sunahara is proud to call his own.