Through any challenge he and his staff faced, Kalani baseball coach Shannon Hirai wanted what was best for his Falcons.
After 23 seasons at the helm, Hirai is finally doing something best for himself. Hirai announced his retirement from coaching on Thursday afternoon, sending an e-mail to players and parents. Then, five minutes later, he called Hawaii Prep World.
“I’m kind of relieved. I’m tired, as most coaches are. I enjoyed my 23 years. I just felt like it was the right time,” he said. “We’re pretty young as far as the kids combing back.”
Hirai began considered stepping away two years ago, and had mentioned it to Athletic Director Greg Van Cantfort.
“I think I’ve done a lot with the program and I’m kind of excited just to be able to go home after work,” he said.
He and his staff had also run the JV team for the past three seasons, meaning they have been practicing in winter (JV season) and spring (varsity), along with American Legion in the offseason. That’s basically nonstop baseball for the past 36 months. Hirai added that he doesn’t have a recommendation for a replacement, and that none of his assistants has expressed interest.
“I’m proud that we’re one of the few OIA schools that have an intermediate team, and a JV and a varsity, which is 19U and has some graduates. That was an idea from Don Omura, one of my assistants,” Hirai said.
The staff is actually taking a trip together after the school year ends. They’ll have plenty of memories to talk about.
“I got to experience taking a team to Japan with a bunch of all-stars,” Hirai recalled. “That was in the early 2000s. Kila Kaaihue was a senior. Kurt Suzuki was on that team. And somehow I ended up being head coach. That would be one of the more memorable things. Then, of course, two years ago, playing in the OIA championship.”
Hirai, the wry, personable head of security at the high school campus, began as an assistant coach to then-football coach Greg Taguchi in 1988. He was just one year out of high school. He also assisted with softball and, naturally, baseball. In 1995, he became the baseball head coach, running a program that used a Parks and Recreation field at Kahala Park. Working within the parameters of limited field time — 3 to 5 p.m. — and the prospect of guiding a team in an aging community.
It didn’t stop the Falcons, who reached the OIA Division I championship game two seasons ago. This year, Kalani reached the state tournament for a third year in a row.
All along, Hirai has learned to make it work without a home field, a rarity in the OIA.
“I think you have to be creative when you’re at Kalani. I got to work with a lot of the community coaches as far as sharing the field, a lot of good people. I think when they hire the next person, that’s something they’ve really got to look into, knowing you only have that time (between 3 and 5 p.m.). That’s why it was hard finding assistants, so I’m really grateful to my assistants. Without them, nothing would’ve been possible.”
Hirai reflects on the years, having spent more than half his life as a Kalani head or assistant coach.
“One of the guys I want to thank a lot is Lenn Sakata. I learned a lot while he was helping out minor-league guys and helping our players,” he said. “I learned from him that it’s a process. There’s so much, he would talk about baseball, the mechanics, the theories about how baseball is played today compared to when he was playing.”
Hirai admits without hesitation that he, too, has changed over the years. Not fundamentally, but practically.
“I know our coaches always tease me about getting soft. Good example is the state tournament. Guys miss the bus and I play them. One guy couldn’t get to the bus and another guy is a senior. This could’ve been his last game,” Hirai said. “I didn’t realize they missed the bus because I’m at (Hans L’Orange Park). I told the senior, ‘Get out there, go stretch.’ Whereas in the past, I would’ve been hard head.”
That bus, he noted, left the school at 7 a.m. for a 9 a.m. game. He stuck by his rules, but exercised a bit of leniency at the right time.
“It was always for the kids,” he said.
And with that, Coach Hirai’s phone was buzzing. Parents had read his retirement email. Now they’re texting.