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Savanna's Ayala, Garcia still doing their best for ex-coach
ANAHEIM - There’s silence.
Giovanny Garcia searches for the right words. Can’t find them.
Garcia, a senior at Savanna, finally answers.
“You walk into a room, and you see him, and you have respect for him, even without knowing him.”
He is talking about Dwight Kamae, or “Coach K” as he’s called inside Savanna’s gymnasium.
Kamae gave Garcia his first break, welcoming him into the school’s volleyball family. He did the same for Joe Ayala.
Then, Kamae died.
• • •
Garcia and Ayala met five years ago, while at Brookhurst Junior High. They rolled in different circles but knew each other. Neither played volleyball.
During winter break his freshman year, Garcia, at the behest of a friend, went out for Savanna’s volleyball team. Ayala also took a friend up on his offer that year and tried out.
Ayala knew Kamae as the teacher’s assistant from his second period earth science class. Kamae always greeted kids with a smile, Ayala said. He always lent advice – on school, on life, on anything.
When Kamae, Savanna’s boys volleyball coach at the time, heard Ayala say he planned on coming out for the team, Kamae pointed at him. “You? Volleyball?” he asked. They both laughed.
“Try your best, that’s all I can ask for,” Kamae told Ayala.
Garcia and Ayala played for the school’s junior varsity team in 2012, a team Garcia remembers finishing something like 20-2. Savanna’s teams often practiced side-by-side, meaning Kamae regularly mentored underclassmen, offering them tips and tricks of the trade.
“He would always tell me to keep my arms straight,” Ayala said. “Stay low. Dive. I used to dive all crazy. He taught me how to dive well.”
After the 2012 season, Kamae told Garcia and Ayala, soon-to-be sophomores, that he was bringing them up to varsity the following year.
• • •
Garcia didn’t know if it was true. Maybe he didn’t want to believe the worst.
One February weekend in 2013, Garcia received a text from a teammate. It said Kamae had died.
Garcia responded. Is it true? No reply. Garcia then texted Ayala, asking if he’d heard anything. Nothing.
Ayala, hanging out with friends at the time, didn’t believe it either. Even so, he just wanted to go home.
That Monday, Garcia said he and a teammate locked eyes while at school. They both cried. Kamae had died of a heart attack.
“He was way too young,” Ayala said.
Kamae spent his winters coaching Savanna’s varsity girls soccer team, and he died near the end of the 2012-13 season. Ayala said all of Kamae’s players, soccer and volleyball, attended a memorial service held at the school in his honor.
“It was chaotic here,” remembered Erika Kobayashi, now in her third year coaching Savanna’s boys volleyball program. “Everyone loved him. He was a father figure, a grandfather figure to most of these kids.”
• • •
Volleyball is Kobayashi’s first love.
She lettered at Millikan High before playing at UC Irvine. She’s been coaching club volleyball the past eight years.
Kobayashi arrived at Savanna in 2006. A science teacher, she took over the school’s aquatics program in 2007, coaching water polo then swimming. Five years passed. In 2011, she began coaching freshman/sophomore girls volleyball.
Kobayashi, Kamae, the junior varsity girls coach and the school’s varsity coach, Robert Olivas, regularly discussed strategy. “We worked well together,” Kobayashi said.
Kobayashi hesitated before accepting an offer in 2013 to become the boys varsity coach.
The boys team and the girls team rarely, if ever, interacted, she said, meaning she knew little about Kamae’s returning letter winners. Plus, a former Savanna player came back to the school following Kamae’s death, coaching briefly while Savanna’s athletic director searched for a new coach.
“It all happened within a two-week stretch,” she said. “Their coach dies, then someone else jumps in and helps out in a time of need. I was their third coach. I think it was too much: the loss of a coach, then me, a female, coming in. It was new for all of them. It took us a while to get on the same page.”
Kobayashi inherited one of the most downtrodden boys volleyball programs in the Orange League, but she saw promise in two sophomores.
• • •
Garcia and Ayala in 2013 wanted to capture the school’s first league volleyball championship. The entire team did. For Kamae.
Garcia said Kamae always spoke about winning league, about hanging a banner in the gym. Everybody wanted 2013 to be that year.
“Our mentality became ‘We have to win league. We’re going to win league,’ ” Ayala said. “I think that messed us up a little bit.”
Magnolia, Anaheim and Katella finished first, second and third in the Orange League that season, with Savanna again failing to qualify for the playoffs.
Garcia and Ayala started as sophomores, filling important roles on a senior-laden team. Ayala said unlike many upperclassmen that year, he and Garcia “just wanted to be coached, and win. We just wanted to play.”
“Those two were, and still are, so coachable,” Kobayashi said. “Me picking the team up on a whim, they were phenomenal. They took everything in like sponges. They’d worked hard for years, and it showed.”
Kobayashi remembers the second half of her first year well. Her team began competing late in the season, taking much better teams to five sets. The program was heading in the right direction.
“I have so much respect for Coach,” Garcia said. “She actually went out of her way to take over the program.”
“Tremendous respect,” Ayala added.
If Kobayashi has to point to a moment last season when she knew Savanna could win league, it would be the second Katella match.
Savanna played Katella twice in one week, taking the first at home in five sets. Two days later, the Rebels won in four.
Let’s see where this goes, Kobayashi thought.
Savanna clinched a share of its first league championship by the last league game. The team in 2013 also won the program’s first playoff match, sweeping St. Anthony of Long Beach. Ayala was named the team’s most valuable player.
Garcia, Ayala and Kobayashi all remembered breaking down emotionally after the season. Tears of joy. They’d done it. Savanna’s greatest team.
“You could tell everyone bought in,” Kobayashi said. “Everyone put the team first. Kids began accepting their roles and what they needed to do for the team to win. We played consistently. We didn’t have big hitters, but our kids played smart. They understood concepts and continued being successful.”
• • •
Kobayashi is waiting on the league championship banner to arrive.
She wants it in her hands before it goes on the wall. She wants last year’s team to return to the school to hold it, to take pictures with it, to see the fruits of its labor. Those kids, for all they went through, deserve that closure.
She’s been told the banner will arrive shortly.
Until then, Kobayashi is shepherding the next wave of boys volleyball players. Garcia and Ayala are helping, and together, they remain the thread connecting Kamae to the program. Ayala said he and Garcia often tell underclassmen their favorite Kamae stories. Garcia said his former coach’s “memory is still going around.”
“Whenever we’d do something wrong,” Ayala said, “Coach K would just tell us to take a lap. ‘Just take a lap.’ He taught us the small things."
Following Kamae’s death, Savanna wore memorial patches on its jerseys – the letter K surrounded by a Hawaiian flower. They began observing moments of silence before matches. Garcia and Ayala still dedicate every match to their late coach.
Kobayashi – who also is Savanna’s varsity girls coach – created the Rebel Character Award last season, given to the player in the program who best “represents what Coach K stood for.” The recipient need not be a letter winner or even a regular, she said.
Last spring, then-senior Brian Andrade received the boys award. This fall, senior Jassaret Ledesma received the girls award.
Kobayashi can’t say enough about Garcia and Ayala. Kamae saw something in them before anyone else did, she said. They are his legacy.
“He was so supportive of the kids here,” Kobayashi said. “He always wanted to help his kids’ lives. He knew their families, he spoke to their parents easily. His believed his kids were students in the classroom, athletes in the gym. But he cared more about the person they were going to be.”
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