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Hafoka begins coaching journey with Spartans

San Jose State’s Fiemea Hafoka dribbles upcourt against BYU during a Maui Jim Maui Classic game at Lahaina Civic Center on Dec. 18, 2019. Hafoka is currently a graduate assistant with the Spartans. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Fiemea Hafoka has reached her future. Years ago, Todd Rickard could tell she was on her way. More recently, Jamie Craighead knew it, too.

Not surprisingly, basketball is right in the middle of the immediate future for Hafoka, the former Lahainaluna High School and San Jose State University standout who grew up in Kihei.

Hafoka is currently a graduate assistant coach for the Spartans program after finishing her eligibility following the 2019-20 season. She earned her bachelor’s degree in child and adolescent development in May and is now working on a master’s degree.

While she is currently doing student teaching three days a week online, coaching has moved to the front line of her career path.

“I’m all coaching right now,” she said via phone Tuesday.

Fiemea Hafoka goes to the basket on Dec. 18, 2019.

Rickard asked his former point guard if she was sure she wanted to walk the coaching path.

“I said, ‘You sure you want to do that?’ She kind of laughed. I said, ‘No, that’s good for you,’ “ the longtime Lunas girls basketball coach said. “I said, ‘It’s very rewarding. When you get kids who want to learn and be part of a program that wants to be successful, it’s rewarding.’ “

Rickard would not mind having Hafoka take over the Lunas program that has won 16 Maui Interscholastic League titles in a row and the 2010 Division I state title.

“I love that girl, I’m so proud of her accomplishments and I’m kind of hoping she comes to Lahainaluna and takes over,” Rickard said. “I told her, ‘When you’re ready, you come back to Lahaina and take ’em.’ I’m getting close to the end and hopefully I can find that successor somewhere.

“She came from the program and understands what it takes to run the program.”

Hafoka helped lead San Jose State to the nation’s largest single-season win turnaround as a senior, posting 19 victories for the program’s highest win total in 40 years. The Spartans were 6-24 her junior season and 19-12 as a senior.

“Me’a will be a great coach if she continues down that path and makes it her career. She has all the intangibles. She is a fierce competitor, a hard worker and a student of the game,” Craighead, the SJSU head coach, wrote in an email to The Maui News. “She understands the game, believes in its ability to shape people’s lives and gives coaching her best effort just like she did as a player. She already is impacting our program in a positive manner in her new role as our Graduate Assistant Coach.”

This season was tough for the Spartans, who spent a month away from campus from mid-December to mid-January because the Bay Area was largely shut down by government decree due to the pandemic. The team canceled the remainder of the season at 2-2 after a pair of losses to Boise State in early January.

Craighead was thankful to have her former point guard on the bench beside her, especially after Hafoka’s leadership and determination led to the large turnaround as a senior.

“We have always said it’s important to leave the program better than you found it. Her legacy and impact is just that,” Craighead wrote. “She was a part of a historic season in San Jose State Women’s Basketball in her senior season and it started from the moment she got to SJSU. It was building every year that passed as she improved and turned out to be one of the most well rounded players that I have coached at SJSU and definitely one the best leaders and captains our program has had in my time here as well.”

Craighead made sure Hafoka would get a homecoming when she helped get the Spartans into the Maui Classic tournament hosted by Oregon State at the Lahaina Civic Center in December 2019.

“She was our leader and our glue that season,” Craighead said. “Her teammates were always inspired by her and knew it was her team.”

The respect is mutual. Hafoka originally thought the coaching profession would be similar to being a player, but quickly found out otherwise.

“The coaches here have been great mentors to me,” Hafoka said. “Before walking into it, I thought it’d be kind of the same thing as being a basketball player, but, you know, you’ve just got to grow up a little bit. To be honest, it’s not and I love it, but, yeah, it’s just not the same.

“Sometimes, you know, I wish I could still be playing, but I love the job that I’m blessed with and I’m so thankful to be here still.”

She has taken her opportunities to get out on the practice floor when the ever-changing COVID protocols allowed. Hafoka had opportunities to play professionally overseas, but she is glad to have started her coaching journey now.

“I know most of these players — I don’t know if they enjoyed me there, but we had a good time,” Hafoka said. “They would come to me for advice, I can see things that maybe as a player they don’t see, especially sitting on the bench. They come up to me and ask ‘What can I work on? What am I doing wrong during games?’ It was nice, I was able to be honest with them, to be open with them because they trust me, they knew me.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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