Coach knows best


POSTED: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mona Fa'asoa's low, gravelly voice dominates the cacophony of the Kaimuki girls basketball practice.

Despite the hollow rubber echoes of dribbling basketballs and the clank of errant shots on the iron rims, Fa'asoa easily makes her point during a defensive drill, barking out instructions, criticisms and praise in an unmistakable staccato fashion. No one is immune from her ire.

“; 'Tishah! Who's your next?!?”;

“;Dejah! Where were you!?! You've got to drop on that play!”;

Fa'asoa, a 1989 graduate of Kaimuki, can be an intimidating presence on the sideline. Her sturdy stature, that demanding voice and her scowls are enough to encourage any player to get it right the second time around.

But for three Kaimuki players, it's impossible to escape Coach Mona's dissecting stare and verbal assaults. That's because for that trio, Coach Mona also goes by Mom.

Kaimuki is off to an 8-1 start in the Oahu Interscholastic Association White Conference after last night's loss to Kahuku. The team features three Fighting Fa'asoas: Dinishah, a senior guard/forward; Letishah, a sophomore point guard; and Dejah, a freshman guard/forward. It is the first and only time all three girls will play together and for their mother, those family ties that bind aren't always easy to handle.

“;It's tough because I guess I'm pretty hard on my girls,”; Mona said with a wry chuckle. “;I expect them to know more. I expect them to do more, to hustle more. ... But I try to keep basketball here, at the gym, and also be their mom at home. It's a tough thing. We're still learning.”;

It has created a tricky dual role for all. Mona has to balance the intensity of basketball with the empathy of being a mother when they've had a bad game. The three girls have to compete for an exceptionally tough coach, and they can't complain about the coach to their mother. And Vai Fa'asoa has to balance being the husband to a basketball coach and a father to the girls.

They all admit it isn't easy, though they seem to handle it as well as can be expected. There's no drama, even though the two younger girls are starters and Dinishah, the senior, is not. There's no drama, even though the family seemingly spends every waking minute together, from the 6 a.m. commute from their home in Waipahu to lunch at school to after-school practice to the drive home to dinner, which is usually eaten on the road as they go home.

  THE GIRLS JOKE about how tough their mom is on them. Mona jokes about how tough she is on the girls. But they've found a way to make what could be a potentially disastrous situation—three teenage girls under constant scrutiny from their demanding mother—work.

Dinishah was the guinea pig for this family experiment. Her freshman year on varsity was the first year Mona dealt with coaching her own blood, and it was not pretty. In the first practice, Dinishah turned the ball over and instead of sprinting back on defense, she walked back and pouted. That's enough to enrage any coach, and Mona sent Dinishah running on the sideline for the rest of practice.

“;I didn't think it was my place to step in, because it was the first time for me to watch my wife and my daughter be in that situation,”; Vai said of the start of Dinishah's first varsity season. “;It was very frustrating.”;

  OVER TIME, the family found a way to balance the relationship, and Mona's coach/mom role has proven easier with Letishah and Dejah. The family is adamant about leaving the intensity of the game at the gym. That's the only way they can make this work, they said. Though it's easier said than done, and conversations inevitably meander back to basketball, they seem to have found a neutral middle ground.

“;Mom's pretty good,”; Dinishah said. “;I'm not covering up for her. Yeah, when we're eating, she'll say, 'Why'd you do this?' And we'd answer and she'll be like, 'Oh. But you know you could've done ... ' It's always like that, but she knows when to drop it.”;

Despite the girls' skill on the court, there will always be those whispers, those people who wonder that maybe Dejah is on varsity thanks to family favoritism or that Letishah has started the last two seasons because of nepotism or that the three see the bulk of playing time because of Mona. The family is aware that there may be the appearance of preferential treatment, but they assert that their abilities have proven there is no impropriety.

“;I heard other girls say, 'Oh, you're going to make the team because of your mom,' “; Dejah said. “;But it's totally the opposite. I heard it, but it makes us practice harder, it makes us practice more, it makes us want to earn our spot more because it's not just our mom, she's our coach. It makes me just want to show to them that we don't just come here and get a spot. We have to earn our spot just like everyone else.”;

  THEIR ABILITIES—Letishah is a pass-first, steady point guard; Dejah is the most offensive-minded of the trio; and Dinishah is an undersized banger down low—should have already proven that they have earned their place on the team. With the three Fa'asoas playing major minutes, along with four-year starter and OIA White Conference first-teamer Olivia Phommachanh, Kaimuki is one of two remaining OIA girls teams with undefeated records (Farrington is 7-0 in the Red Conference.) The Bulldogs are churning toward a potential OIA White championship, which would be Kaimuki's first since title since 1990.

That championship would be a dream finish to what has been an ideal season for the Fa'asoas, a season that will be the one and only time the trio of daughters will compete together for Coach Mona/Mom.

“;I just want to cherish this,”; Dejah said. “;It's our only year together.”;