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    Whether it was stepping up from Division II to Division I in volleyball or accumulating a 3.6 grade-point average, Moanalua’s Richard Harpole has been up to the challenge.
    Richard Harpole and his Moanalua teammates vie for the state title this week.

Way back when, in the ancient period of 2009, Richard Harpole was a string bean, a 145-pound underclassman.

That’s why, when he suffered a back injury plus a bruised spine during one football season, volleyball seemed to be a much safer place.

Now 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds of coiled, wicked power above the net, the senior has helped Moanalua rise this spring. After two years in Division II, Na Menehune went unbeaten (16-0) in the Oahu Interscholastic Association’s D-I conference. Strong back-row defense. Smart passing. When it matters most, Moanalua counts on Harpole as its key outside hitter, even as defenses smother him.

Harpole, who will play at Hope International University next season, is efficient with his swings and is often unstoppable with his serve. But that yearning for perfection doesn’t end when he leaves the gym each day.

For the past few nights, he has studied late and slept little. Exams in English, Earth sciences and sociology have occupied his mind.

"Until 3:30 tomorrow morning, I’m cramming," he said on Sunday, raving about Mrs. (Terri) Browning’s English course. "She’s the best teacher in the world. We read a book called ‘The Alchemist.’ We have to do a research paper. Mine is going to be about the Koran and the basics of it, and I have to do a 10-point Power Point presentation. I haven’t even started that."

The sociology exam, administered by Mrs. (Jennifer) Cole, encompasses the year’s work. The financial aspect of society raises Harpole’s ire.

"You learn about people and their problems, and I don’t really want to learn about that. For example, people go bankrupt and wonder why they go bankrupt, ‘Why did I invest in this?’ Save your money. What’s so hard about that? That’s what banks are for," he said. "It sucks when you see how badly corrupt this society has become."

Then there’s astronomy, which is part of Erron Yoshioka’s Earth sciences class.

"I like how vast space can be. It’s pretty crazy how everything’s out there and you can’t really see it," he said.

With a 3.6 grade-point average, he takes every exam seriously; so much so, he pulled all-night cram sessions on Friday and Saturday.

When Harpole sets his mind to something, it’s stuck for good. He has enough determination for two people, which is fine with his mother.

"It’s all part of being a student-athlete. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be difficult," he said.

Harpole’s father, Tobe, died when he was 31⁄2. His mom eventually remarried, giving her son an extended family of baseball players. Jordan DePonte, a standout on the baseball team, is his stepbrother. He was still playing on the diamond until the football injury. After giving volleyball a try, he found success. There was no room left for innings and pop flies. Instead, he fell in love with the kill.

"I remember he loves me. I’m playing this season for Zach Manago and my dad," he said, remembering a former classmate and Moanalua baseball player who died in a bicycle/car accident last January. "Zach was in my marine biology (class) last year. He was a really great guy. I’m missing him right now. Our baseball team is doing fantastic and our judo team won states for the second year in a row. I hope we can continue it."

It’s hard to imagine how good someone can be at volleyball, just one day away from the state tournament, with so little rest and so little time left to prepare. After an opening-round bye for second-seeded Moanalua tomorrow, the team in blue makes its first appearance in the D-I tourney — being played at Waiakea and Keaau on the Big Island — in years.

Kuikahi Volleyball Club coach Teoni Obrey has seen many young players take on the challenge.

"Rich joined Kuikahi when he was 15. We were wondering, ‘Who is this kid? Where’s he from?’ He was raw, but physically strong," said Obrey, who is also head coach at Hawaii Baptist.

Harpole, the intellectual rebel of sorts, thrived with year-round practice.

"Rich will never back down from a challenge. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he loves volleyball. He never can seem to get enough of it," Obrey said. "I don’t remember if he was ever late to a club practice."

Harpole sees his club coaches as mentors, in a way.

"I actually care about school now. My freshman, sophomore year, I didn’t really give a rip. Coach Obrey showed me that somebody out there cares about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. I give him all the credit. Today, I wouldn’t be where I’m at without him and my other coach, David Serafin. They came down to school and talked to me. They were like, ‘What are you doing? You know you could be playing college ball and you’re screwing around?’ I didn’t know that," Harpole said.

After a regular-season win, Moanalua coach Doug Hee said he’d never coached anyone quite like Harpole. He could’ve been that smart guy who walked away after a freakish injury, never to play a sport again. Obrey is glad Harpole is excelling on and off the court.

"Rich still has room for improvement, but he is willing to put the time it takes to keep getting better. We’re so proud of his development, but this is just the beginning," Obrey said. "Imagine how much better he will be once he gets on a collegiate weight program. You think he hits the ball now … "

Mother’s Day passed, but not without Harpole reflecting on his mom’s gentle touch. Kathy played for Moanalua back in the day.

"It’s something me and my mom can both enjoy. I love my mom sitting in the stands yelling, ‘Come on, you stupid kid! Hit that ball! Bounce it! I’m waiting!’ "

He laughs while he does an impression of his mother. Soon enough, he’s back in the house, doing the work that involves no fans and no applause. Mrs. Browning, Mrs. Cole and Mr. Yoshioka would expect no less.

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