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Mr. 400: Kevin Aoki Aoki's impact reaches BEYOND the volleyball court

For Pacific Lutheran University volleyball coach Kevin Aoki, winning isn’t a part-time job. The 1984 PLU graduate has been patrolling the sidelines as the Lutes’ head coach since the 1996 season and over the weekend tallied his milestone 400th collegiate victory in a 3-0 win over Briar Cliff University at the Spike It Up Classic in Denver, Colorado.

Aoki’s career has seen the Lutes hoist 10 Northwest Conference titles over the past 22 seasons, make 11 NCAA Division III Tournament appearances, all while compiling an eye-popping 401-178 record on the court. The laundry list of accolades includes winning NWC Coach of the Year nine times and earning West Region Coach of the Year on three occasions.

While the list of accolades is long, that’s not Aoki’s main focus as a coach.

“Seeing them progress from a freshman to a senior is amazing. We like to see them grow not just volleyball-wise, but as people so they can have successful careers after volleyball. I think the key for our success, everyone wants to win, we understand that, but we don't put a heavy emphasis on that outside the relationships you have with your teammates and coaches and just getting better all the time through practice. The outcome will take care of itself if you take care of all those things. When you have good student-athletes that are nice people, it makes it appealing. To me, the closeness of our team and our program is what makes it. Winning is just icing on the cake.”

“Seeing them progress from a freshman to a senior is amazing. We like to see them grow not just volleyball-wise, but as people so they can have successful careers after volleyball. I think the key for our success, everyone wants to win, we understand that, but we don't put a heavy emphasis on that outside the relationships you have with your teammates and coaches and just getting better all the time through practice. The outcome will take care of itself if you take care of all those things. When you have good student-athletes that are nice people, it makes it appealing. To me, the closeness of our team and our program is what makes it. Winning is just icing on the cake.”

Aoki does more than just preach being a well-rounded student-athlete, he lives it as he balances his full-time job as a physical education teacher at Bethel Middle School with the demands of running a nationally-ranked volleyball program and spending time with his family.

“I'm kind of like the student-athletes. Volleyball can't be number one. Family comes first and my teaching is important because it pays the majority of the bills and this is what I call my part-time, full-time job. It makes for a long day. I get up at five and don't come home until around seven. I try and balance that with my two boys and my wife, so it comes from my family helping out too and realizing this is a love of mine that I love to do. We make it work. We have good student-athletes, good support from (Athletic Director) Laurie Turner and (Senior Associate AD) Jen Thomas and the support staff that have helped along the way that make my job easier.”

Aoki attributes much of the program’s success to the high quality assistants that have been with the program. None have arguably made more of an impact than Tim Templin who retired after last season and had been on the sidelines with Aoki for 394 of his 401 career victories.

"This is a love of mine that I love to do. We make it work. We have good student-athletes, good support from (Athletic Director) Laurie Turner and (Senior Associate AD) Jen Thomas and the support staff that have helped along the way that make my job easier.”

“I think part of our success has been due to having the same assistant for 22 years. And we've been good friends all along since the college days. That of course makes it easier when you don't have to re-teach an assistant. That's a big portion of why we're successful. But I think just generating the type of student-athletes we go after. My recruiting base isn't huge. I single out the one's that seem to fit PLU.”

While Templin has moved on Aoki has stocked his coaching staff with PLU alums Becca Holtgeerts and Rusty Carlson who both had a great understanding of the program prior to joining the staff.

Holtgeerts has been on staff since last season and was a player for the Lutes from 2010 to 2013, helping PLU win two league titles and make three trips to the NCAA Tournament. Her skills extend beyond the court, serving as a strength and conditioning coach for the team too.

“I think part of our success has been due to having the same assistant for 22 years. And we've been good friends all along since the college days. That of course makes it easier when you don't have to re-teach an assistant. That's a big portion of why we're successful."

Carlson was a teammate of Aoki on the men’s club team in college at PLU and was Templin’s roommate. He was Aoki’s first assistant when he first took the coaching job at Bethel High School and has been a friend for over 30 years.

“He's so knowledgeable. We have assistants that are part time as well, so we need to balance that if scheduling conflicts arise. We understand it's a team game.”

Aoki first visited PLU as a junior in high school. The Hawaii native had a classmate a year older attend the University. During spring break, Aoki and a teammate made the visit to check out the campus.

“I had a classmate of mine who graduated a year before me and he liked the school. So during my senior year, one of my teammates who eventually played football here- David Chun, we ended up taking a spring trip to visit the school. We liked what we saw. We came from a smaller private school so it was very similar.”

Aoki always thought he was destined to coach. His first chance came as a sophomore, serving as the junior varsity assistant at Bethel High School for two years. He was a volunteer assistant for the Lutes as a senior before taking the head coach job at Bethel High School.

He coached at Bethel for 12 seasons, qualifying for the state tournament in nine of those seasons before accepting the job at his alma mater.

“I knew if I was going to take this job I would be giving up a good team at Bethel that year. But in a way I felt good about that. And sure enough, in 1996 my former team won the state championship.”

The Lutes having fun on the road

Luckily for Aoki, things got off to a good start at PLU. Aoki’s coaching debut was a victory, a 3-1 win over Montana State University-Northern in a tournament at Whitworth University in a harbinger of the success to come.

Since then, Aoki’s impact has extended beyond the volleyball court.

“Kevin has had a tremendous impact not only on the volleyball program but the entire athletic department. His success goes well beyond the wins and losses. He has created a selfless team culture that emulates the mission of PLU on the court, on campus, and in the community, all while having a lot of fun,” said Athletic Director Laurie Turner.

“Kevin has had a tremendous impact not only on the volleyball program but the entire athletic department. His success goes well beyond the wins and losses. He has created a selfless team culture that emulates the mission of PLU on the court, on campus, and in the community, all while having a lot of fun,” said Athletic Director Laurie Turner.

“Kevin’s commitment to his camp program has provided opportunities for the local youth to become connected to PLU at a very young age. He’s stayed true to his core values providing access to the sport he loves. He has done all of this while being a part-time employee at PLU.”

His program has been one of the standard-bearers of the department and has been a role-model for others in the department.

“When I first got hired at PLU in February 2012, I looked at Kevin and what he’s done with his program as the ‘model’ on how to build the women’s soccer program,” said two-time NWC Coach of the Year Seth Spidahl. “His level of consistently being good is amazing and I view him as a role model in how I aspire our program to be ‘great’ year-in and year-out.”

“Kevin’s commitment to his camp program has provided opportunities for the local youth to become connected to PLU at a very young age. He’s stayed true to his core values providing access to the sport he loves. He has done all of this while being a part-time employee at PLU.”

Now in his 23rd season at the helm, Aoki shows no signs of slowing down as the Lutes (7-1), ranked 10th in the nation, begin their NWC title defense this Friday with their home opener against Pacific University at 7 p.m. inside Olson Gymnasium.

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