In 2009, the beloved coach of Kailua High School’s girls soccer team, Wil Kimura, died unexpectedly mid-season. People in the tightly-knit town came together and quietly mourned the loss.
“After the head coach had passed away, I was asked if I could step in (as coach),” Malu Afong said. “I was so sad. I hesitated. But Kailua is my alma mater, and I am from the community. I could not say no.”
Afong said it was tough for the girls to pick up after Kimura’s death, but that their motivation that season was “amazing.”
“I think it really helped the girls that they wanted to do something for the coach who they missed so much,” she said.
The team eventually took second place at the state championship.
“I think that was my biggest and best accomplishment,” Afong said. “We had trials and obstacles that we had to overcome. That made the victory something very special. It is more than a game. It is an experience in life we will never forget.”
Fast forward 11 years and the team now has one of the state’s longest winning records in high school soccer history. In 2018, the team won the division two championship with the girls claiming the top spot after a “golden goal,” a goal that is scored in overtime and results in the immediate end of the game.
Afong is also a personal transition plan teacher at Kailua High School and the coordinator of the school’s career technical education program. She is known to keep an eye on student athletes, making sure sports are a pathway to good grades and not a distraction.
The school requires every player to fill out a grade check in order to be eligible to play. If students are failing a class or have lower than a 2.0 GPA, they must attend mandatory study halls and complete another grade check after two weeks until they are eligible to play.
Afong is as strict about the policy as she is passionate about coaching soccer.
Varsity team captain Kiana Carvalho said Afong looks to motivate the success of team members in the overall school setting.
“Over the years, Coach Malu has inspired and pushed me to be a better player,” she said.
Carvalho also credited Afong with opening her eyes to the opportunities that come with soccer just as Alex Morgan was rising to fame as a forward for the U.S. women’s national team. Morgan started for the U.S. national teams that won Olympic gold in 2012 and the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2019. Carvalho said Morgan was definitely “a reason for me to look twice at soccer as something I will continue to enjoy.”
Afong said girls soccer has evolved in a sunny new light since she took the head coach job at Kailua High School a decade ago. But with the rising interest, she has players who come to her with different mindsets and skill levels.
“At a public school, we can have players who have never played before to players who played a few years to players who played club and traveled a lot for 10-plus years of their lives,” Afong said. “You’ll have them all in one group in one team. So the question becomes how do you manage all of that and how do you keep all of them engaged? Now that’s where it becomes a little tricky because some players may be too advanced for some drills and some drills may be too novice for some players. It’s finding that balance that is so important in sports and in the classroom.”
For Afong, coaching is a way to share her knowledge “that I have as an individual to some of the values that seem like they no longer exist.”
“I feel like that’s my way or my opportunity to groom young players to become the well-rounded citizens that can contribute to society in a positive way,” she said.
by Tori DeJournett, Special to Ka ‘Ohana