As Punahou boys volleyball coach Rick Tune searches for a way to describe senior setter Tyler Kubota, he attempts to find a metaphor that won’t be considered cliche, or coachspeak.
Still, Tune couldn’t avoid it, calling Kubota a "coach’s dream." The coach has high hopes that his court marshal will help his predominantly younger teammates learn how to win as a team.
"He’s got a team-first attitude; I can’t remember a practice or game when he didn’t give it all he has," Tune said. "I’m not downplaying that at all. He has the respect of everybody else without saying a word; he just commands respect. He’s a very strong student who cares about others and is willing to put himself aside in favor of the team."
A prime example of Kubota’s character shone through when Tune and his coaching staff altered the squad’s floor rotation following the departure of last season’s all-state player of the year Josh Taylor. With Taylor in the mix last season, Punahou employed a 5-1 rotation, which keeps one setter — in this case Kubota — on the floor, while Taylor ‘s skill set allowed him to hit as an attacker both from the front and back rows, a rare ability at this age level.
However, with Taylor no longer present, Tune has tentatively decided on a 6-2 rotation that calls for more substitutions, including bringing in another setter to make sure the attackers are in the right position. This scheme means roughly half the playing time for Kubota, who insists that he is fine with the move because "I totally see what he’s doing, and I totally agree with it. It’s best for the team."
Tune lauded Kubota’s positive attitude, saying: "It’s just a different system, so Tyler ‘s playing time is shaved in half. For him, it’s all about the group, and that’s really hard for an 18-year-old to do, and to do it every day. We take things as they come up; we’re not 100 percent set yet, and it’s just the mix that we have. You always tailor your system to meet the strengths of the team."
Kubota’s leadership by example extends beyond the court and into the classroom. The senior is still awaiting word on an admission decision from UC San Diego, where he hopes to study biochemistry, and eventually go on to medical school. While he would like to walk on and play volleyball at the collegiate level, Kubota realizes that "volleyball is a passion, but not my future. School is definitely more important."
It’s that level of maturity that gives Tune such confidence in Kubota to help in molding a relatively young group.
"The best way to describe Tyler is that I’ve never heard a bad word said about him," Tune said. "He just does his work and doesn’t make an effort to grab the spotlight. That combination shows a lot of character, and that’s how we want to do things at Punahou."
Tune instills in his squad the notion that despite the school’s unprecedented volleyball success, this year’s team can’t be lumped into the same sentence — or in this case, paragraph — of all the school’s former championship groups. Punahou has won two consecutive state crowns — both over league rival Kamehameha — as well as five state championships in the past six years, and 29 titles overall in the 41-year history of the state tourney.
"We don’t really talk about that stuff," said Tune, when asked about the pressure his teams face. "I want them to be in touch with the history, but we start off the new year with a new slate. The game and team change all the time.
"We’re really young, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. They’re all eager to learn and they’re willing to do that. It’s going to take some time, but we want to be playing our best volleyball by May. This team is very deep and talented and it’s a matter of how quickly they can learn to win."
Tune is confident that his squad, thanks in no small part to Kubota’s influence, will learn the formula for winning against what should be a tough ILH slate.
"We split the season into different phases and have certain goals for that, but we don’t focus on wins and losses," Tune said. "Wins take care of themselves if you take care of the process. Sixty years worth of volleyball players at Punahou have done it. If you do it the right way, it’ll take care of itself."
Regarding the competition in the ILH, Tune added: "I’ve only seen a few teams this year (play in the preseason). It’s all different because until you see the mix (of players), you don’t know how it’s going to work together. The ILH from top to bottom is a really good league, so I’m expecting a bunch of good teams this year."
Punahou opens its Interscholastic League of Honolulu schedule with Saint Louis today at 6 p.m. in its home gym.