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After nearly half a century of coaching, Baldwin’s Kalehuawehe has seen it all

Coach Speak is a special series of stories highlighting coaches from around the Maui Interscholastic League. Stories will run periodically throughout the summer in The Maui News.

Kalehuawehe

Angel Kalehuawehe has seen it all during his 48 years coaching basketball at Baldwin High School.

His girls teams have run the gamut, from domination during the late 1990s to early 2000s, to having to recruit athletes from other sports to keep the program on the court for the 2018-19 season.

“At the time I started (in 1992) I was only going to coach until my daughter graduated high school and then I will go back to doing my own thing, like surf — I did a lot of surfing back then — then the program started to get better and better as the years went on, so we decided to stay for a while,” Kalehuawehe said. “And then more girls started coming in in the ’90s, so I decided I can’t leave the freshmen who started with me, they’ll finish with me.

“Then after that I just got hooked to it.”

Kalehuawehe graduated from Kaimuki High School in 1965 — he spent his freshman year at Baldwin before his swimming prowess led him to Oahu, where he competed for legendary coach Soichi Sakamoto in club competition. He attended Western State College in Colorado on a swim scholarship.

After a 12-year run teaching at Kahului School, he moved to Baldwin in 1984 and spent the final 30 years of his teaching career there, retiring in 2014.

Kalehuawehe started coaching Baldwin basketball with Jon Garcia — the former athletic director and boys head basketball coach who the school’s gym is named for — in 1972. After his son Chad graduated, Angel Kalehuawehe moved to the girls program in 1992 to coach daughter Christin.

Before Lahainaluna’s current streak of 16 straight Maui Interscholastic League titles, the Bears were the team to beat. Kalehuawehe guided two Baldwin girls teams to state final four appearances.

The two players that stand out the most for him are former MIL Players of the Year Kami Kapaku and Nicole Gabin, who also won two state soccer titles for the Bears and was the 2006 Pacific-10 Conference soccer player of the year for the University of Oregon.

“Back then, they went all out for me,” Kalehuawehe said. “They played offseason, they worked on their game, so coaching was easy.”

Perhaps his best coaching job was during the 2018-19 season when the school of more than 1,500 students nearly didn’t field a varsity girls basketball team. That is, until Kalehuawehe searched for and found athletes from other sports to fill the void.

“We had to use five softball players, cheerleaders, kids who had never played the game before,” he said. “I think that was one of our most memorable coaching seasons because it was actually fun to coach because there was no pressure on us. They were willing to learn. I was shocked — it was fun coaching them.”

Garbin is married to former Oregon and NFL player Matt Toeaina — the couple has five children ages 3 to 11 — and they run a foundation dedicated to helping student-athletes in Northern California.

She remembers learning much of her current dedication from Kalehuawehe.

“He’s very passionate about the sport,” said Garbin Toeaina, who also played a season of basketball at Oregon. “He always wanted to see the best out of us. He always strived to bring the best out of every player. He was never that type of demeaning coach, always positive, and very disciplined. He wanted us to be a very disciplined team on the court, very hard-working.

“His strategy was ‘we’re going to outwork the other team and we’re going to run, run, run. We’re going to make sure that we’re in shape. The other team will never outwork us.’ “

Basketball has always been Kalehuawehe’s passion — he played for Kaimuki while also on the swim team and later played on the semi-professional Maui Whalers in the armed forces league for six years. He didn’t leave the court until his body told him it was over, playing in Maui recreational leagues into his late 50s.

Now, at 72 years old, he can’t leave the game he has always loved.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you still going?’ Now, it’s like a passion,” he said. “For me, I used to love playing the game. I mean, I loved playing. I played the game until I was like maybe 58 — that’s when my knees started going.”

Baldwin athletic director Wade Hondo has nothing but appreciation for what Kalehuawehe means to the program and the school.

“Former and current players all echo the same sentiments — Coach Kal is very demanding, does not put up with a lot of excuses and expects a person’s best effort at all times,” Hondo said in an email to The Maui News. “But with that hard side there is also a softer side that he shows as well. Whether it is telling goofy stories, singing and dancing with the team during practice or just a simple ‘hi’ or ‘how are you,’ Coach Kal’s kindheartedness and genuine care for each person’s well-being is what players and students enjoy and remember the most about him. It’s one of the many reasons that so many alumni will come back and want to help or will visit on their breaks just to talk story.”

Kalehuawehe sees a landmark number on the horizon that shows he is not leaving the game anytime soon.

“The passion is still there, the excitement of being around the youths and teaching them how to play this game,” he said. “So, at least, if I’m mentally and physically able to do it, I’m going to go at least two more years — that’s going to make 50 years of coaching. That’s my goal right now, just to say I did it.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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