Q&A: Kamehameha volleyball coach Chris Blake on postponed season, replanning

Kamehameha coach Chris Blake talked with his team during a timeout in the D-I state volleyball final against Punahou. Photo by Steven Erler/Special to the Star-Advertiser.

Since 2005, Kamehameha has won 10 Division I girls volleyball state championships under Coach Chris Blake.

The only other teams to win state titles during this period also hail from the Interscholastic League of Honolulu: Punahou (three titles) and ‘Iolani (two).

On a regular basis, the program at Kamehameha has set a bar so high, starters and reserves alike often proceed with their careers at the college level. From year-round work with their respective club teams, to a carefully crafted preseason, regular-season and postseason regimen, the Warriors play in the toughest volleyball league and find ways to compete for titles.

Any Warrior who has trained on the track for the team’s 1.5-mile run, or worked out almost religiously in the athletic department’s massive weight training facility understands the commitment.

As of Wednesday evening, however, the girls volleyball season has been postponed until January at the earliest. Coach Blake, also a math teacher at Kamehameha, discussed the wide-ranging repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic with Hawaii Prep World on Wednesday night.

HPW: There’s so much to take in. How do you feel now that the switch of the volleyball season is official?

Chris Blake: Based upon the things that were happening in our communities the past two weeks, it’s not a surprise. The safety of our scholar-athletes and their families needs to take precedent over sports, which is important to all of us. It’s the fabric of who we are.

HPW: It has been a spring and summer in lockdown, and limited sports. Now an entire fall. How do you adapt?

Blake: The delays have allowed us to have creative ways to engage. I just got off a Zoom with our coaching staff. (The postponement news) came out around 5 p.m. I made a quick text to everybody and an all-hands meeting. We posed the question to our staff. If all our safety is taken care of, we want to be there to help our kids improve. (The high school volleyball season) is five months from now, longer than our summer, so it’s about taking the right approach so we can peak at the right time. It would need all of our coaches and their expertise to create that safety.

HPW: That’s going to be unprecedented preparation time with restrictions if the gym is available.

Blake: Let’s say we can meet in groups of three to five, do we do positional practices? Are we allowed to do stuff over the net? Do we cohort? We definitely wouldn’t be doing it as team drills right away. It would be more teaching and growth. It allows for a greater emphasis on strength and injury prevention. The gift of time is important for this.

HPW: There’s no blueprint for the seasons, but I think Nevada has a template of shorter seasons between December and May. Hawaii’s seasons could shrink by a third or even half. It’s possible, maybe probable, that bigger programs like Kamehameha will have to reduce the number of teams at the middle school and JV level.

Blake: It’s definitely a concern. We’re fortunate that we have lots of participation. I’ve always talked about playing the long game in this situation. COVID is going to be around for as long as it’s going to be around. The loss of a team or two will have an effect in the development, it will make a big difference.

HPW: It’s pretty clear that this is a tough, scary environment for all sports. I believe administrators across the state just want to get through this school year without a single fatality. Just get through it, even if it means massively shortening seasons.

Blake: That’s the thing that’s so powerful about this situation. Us just talking about it is a big deal, but one (fatality) is already way too much. And our scholar-athletes who play multiple sports. They’re going to have to choose. Coach Brandyn (Akana) at Kahuku, a lot of his players are football players. Or Saint Louis, a lot of their basketball players are football players.

HPW: Coach (and ILH football coordinator) Wendell Look (of ‘Iolani) noted that January is the middle of the busiest season of the year, especially for indoor sports. February would be a more likely time for fall sports to emerge.

Blake: It’s going to be harder with that equity piece. In a perfect world, we do start in January, when we also have girls basketball, boys basketball, girls volleyball and boys volleyball – how safe is that for density when there’s a bottleneck of athletes? Half an hour to sanitize and clean before the next group.

HPW: That’s a tough deal for everyone, especially trainers and facility people.

Blake: Athletics is a key part in all education programs even though it doesn’t serve everybody. It also goes a long way because a good majority of families put a lot of time and effort, extras, into it. It’s hard to know what happens when you have other things and you’re not allowed to compete in those things. I’m still proponent that sports is important, but the health and safety of our community takes precedence. If one person, a family member, a grandma contracts it through this, that puts a burden on it and really puts it into perspective.

HPW: The NBA has zero new cases in its Orlando bubble, which is almost too good to believe, and MLB has clusters on two teams already without bubbles. It’s practically not possible to avoid new cases without a tight bubble.

Blake: The asymptomatic spread is the key. From what I’ve read, in the Korean Baseball League, if one person gets it, they shut down the whole league for two weeks. Here, 13 people for the Cardinals get it, we’re still going to play. COVID is an amplifier of the things around you. It helps to expose some of the gaps and strengths of many of the systems that we’re in. Some of that is our society, but it provides an opportunity for self-reflection, the value you have for your family and your health, the things you do well whether it’s athletics or whatever it is. How are you going to be able to do all those things when the chips are stacked against you?

HPW: How much of it is cultural? Japan and South Korea have handled the pandemic better than most, lots of contact tracing. We’ve done pretty well in Hawaii, and now the spike.

Blake: They understand the greater good rather than looking at self and what’s in it for me. The understand what’s important to the community, the whole is more important than the one. That’s some of the discussion we have with our returnees. You may be asked to do some things, it’s like we’re starting a household. We all have to make a certain amount of sacrifices. Not being able to do things, be with friends. Having that kind of discussion with these scholar-athletes helps to bring perspective to their adult life. It’s a great way to learn a tough lesson.

HPW: So if that means a season is eight or nine weeks long, and the day off is Sunday, players might need to give up going to a crowded beach or the mall.

Blake: It’s that accountability. If nobody’s watching, what do you do? How do you build that kind of structure? With my children, if you want to be successful, what do you do when nobody’s watching? Sometimes it might lead to success, sometimes to nowhere, but studies show when you’re doing these extras.

HPW: I’ve always been amazed at the way your teams journal after practices and matches. What do you ask them to write?

Blake: Often times it’s just a reflection. What did you see? Players do a great job of parroting what they hear from their coaches. In preseason, I do this a lot. I ask a kid to run a time out. It’s usually done in our tournament, still in building phase, and the kids know and they begin to expect it. We’ve been lucky enough, even if I call a time out, they have to run it. They have 30 seconds to a minute, and it forces a person to pay more attention to what’s going on (if they’re going to run a time out). I’ll tell them, you’re running the first time out in this set. It’s interesting because it’s uncomfortable at first, but those who have been through it, they get better at it. I’ll pop up and give them little hints if they’re uncomfortable, but it’s empowering to know something is going right, and if not, what do we maintain? Is my role as a cheerleader, or as a tactician?

HPW: I remember that last season during a huge match, think it was Kamehameha and ‘Iolani. It was something I hadn’t noticed before.

Blake: We also do that to change our voice in our time out. That helps them. That’s part of our process. We’ve talked about it at the end of our season, what did you say between sets to get them to come out fired up? I didn’t say anything. They take something they see as me telling them and they make it their own. It’s their team. Even when things are going bad, knowing they have a voice helps them beyond volleyball. When things are going on crazy around you, the true focus is everything. Are you going to freak out and freeze?

HPW: What does the fall season look like now for your program?

Blake: I’m on the USA volleyball junior (organization). The shifting on the season might have an effect on our club season. Normally it starts in November and runs until July, so now everything is in a tizzy.

HPW: Are you comfortable with a certain amount of competition, or is fall going to be very basic, Phase-1 level protocols?

Blake: Volleyball, there isn’t a lot of cross-court touching, but you can’t help it. My son plays soccer, you can’t help but do that. Good things are happening in stadiums, but you can’t help but touch. Sports has that camaraderie, it’s ingrained in so many things.

HPW: Especially with younger athletes in middle and elementary school. Kids naturally gravitate toward each other, and it’s a lot of reminding not to do that.

Blake: People think it’s going to get back to how it was before. It’s never going back to that again. How do we adapt and mold into our new situation and end up better for it? That’s tough. The worst excuse is, that’s how we always did it. Even if you’re the most successful group, that’s not enough of a reason to still do things that way. But I’m optimistic.

HPW: So the possibility of club leagues or tournaments this fall is there?

Blake: I think at some point we would be. At the current situation, we’ll rethink things, but hopefully in the future, we’ll look at actual competition. Especially in Hawaii, evaluate, put things at pause and see what’s best for everyone.

HPW: Another concern with the fall for schools that have on-campus classes is flu season. The hybrid and online-only schedules would seem to mean less chance of contact and infection, as opposed to getting sick and becoming more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Blake: A lot of kids and teachers go to school while they’re contagious with the flu. That’s one of the things that has shifted a bit. For the betterment of your community. Zoom still has limits back on. You can record, all my lessons are recorded so the kids can look at it on their own time. Some of them were there in the meeting, but go back and watch it again. On the education side, there’s lots of innovation and creativity. It forces us to think about our tournaments, practices, how we teach. A lot of crazy ideas to make things better. Change is different, not always better. We just have to figure out how to make things better.


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