A few weeks ago, Kawika Shoji and Taylor Crabb escaped the tedium of quarantine to do some hill sprints near their houses in Manoa. There is nothing new or special or spectacular about this. It is, actually, the most normal, mundane, practiced bit of Shoji’s life up to this point. It isn’t necessarily the hill sprints that are typical, but the fact that Shoji was there. Leading.
Much has been made, justifiably – and in fact much more needs to be made – of today’s generation of Hawai’i volleyball players either currently or previously representing the United States in some professional capacity or other. There is Spencer McLachlin, a national champ at Stanford in 2010, Crabb’s first partner on the AVP Tour, now a coach at UCLA. There’s Brad Lawson, who put together one of the most complete performances in national championship history, leading the Cardinal to that 2010 title with 24 kills in 28 swings. He was named, alongside Shoji, his setter, the NCAA Tournament MVP. There’s Micah Christensen, Shoji’s current roommate and arguably the best setter on the planet. There’s Shoji’s younger brother, Erik, his teammate and libero on the United States National Team.
Then, on the beach, there’s Tri Bourne, one of the top blockers in the USA Volleyball pipeline and currently ranked second in the American race to Tokyo. And the Crabbs, both Taylor and Trevor, the former currently ranked No. 1 in the American Olympic race, the latter, Bourne’s partner, to be cemented on the Manhattan Beach Pier later this year. There’s the McKibbins, Riley and Madison, whose infectious personalities and talents both on the beach and in the YouTube studios have led them to become perhaps the AVP’s most recognizable and hirsute faces.
There are two common threads to the immeasurable success of that group: Honolulu roots.
And Kawika Shoji.
“I was kind of the first generation to come over,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
It is not difficult to see why Shoji is the one who cleared the path, from the Islands to California to anywhere in the world that might need a good volleyball player. The son of legendary coach Dave Shoji, who helmed the University of Hawai’i from 1975-2017, Kawika saw first-hand what it took to climb the ladder. Even as a kid, he realized that volleyball, be it on the beach or indoors, is “a skillful game, it’s an athletic game, but it’s also a game of intelligence and decision making and strategy,” said Kawika, who is 32, married and with a 2-year-old daughter, Ada-Jean.
“That’s the biggest takeaway I have of my upbringing. Most of us from Hawai’i, especially Erik and I, are not genetic freaks. We’re not jumping out of the gym, not the tallest, not the strongest, but the ability to control the ball and the ability to make the right decisions are things we pride ourselves on and have carried us a long way. It’s something I have a lot of pride in.”
His is an old-school mindset. He wasn’t raised in an era of social media highlight tapes, but in repetition-intensive practices. Ball control and decision-making were king. It’s how he became the first brick upon the Stanford foundation that would win that 2010 National Championship. Not with awe-inducing swings or bounce-blocks, but the two most fundamental aspects of the game: Controlling the ball, controlling your mind.
“I still think the game needs to be played the right way, and if you look at the top players, you don’t get to the top unless you can control the ball,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. That came from my dad. He knew the importance of ball control. He was really skill focused and old school in that way: A lot of repetitions. It can definitely get a little monotonous for sure, but if you don’t put in those touches, those hours, you can’t master whatever skill you’re trying to master. You gotta find a way to touch the ball and feel the ball.”
It wasn’t just volleyball in which he espoused that mindset. As a standout on the Iolani School basketball team, he was named the Hawai’i State Player of the Year. He joked that his being named Player of the Year says more about the state of Hawai’i high school basketball than it does about his own skills on the court, but the one thing that he did point out was this: “I got it around just because of how smart I was on the court.”
It is more than possible that this generation of Honolulu natives would enjoy the successes they’re enjoying whether Shoji paved the way or not. But few can be roommates with the player who shares their position, fighting for the same spot, and see it not as an awkward pairing, but as a legitimate advantage, both for the team and as a player.
“I’m going to be ready if needed, and I’m going to do all of the little things to help our team win, help our team prepare, and that’s just understanding yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, your role, and valuing that role and what you do for others,” he said. “We all have service aspects of our life and our different roles in life and you have to value it.”
So he’s carved out a successful career overseas, picking up contracts in Finland, Germany, Turkey, Russia, Italy, and, currently, Poland. He supplements that with his role on the United States National Team, with whom he won a bronze medal in 2016.
At the current moment, he’s quarantined, like every other athlete. He has his brother, his wife, his daughter. The Crabbs, when they’re home, are “a lob wedge” down the street. He’s finding ways to be productive, be it watching film or running hill sprints or finishing up his masters in sports psychology.
Finding some way to do what he’s always done: Lead.