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Long Road to Denton


Hawaii native Andrew Palileo is building something special in North Texas.

By Lance Tominaga

When you’re raised in Hawaii, you’re expected to know your volleyball.

Andrew Palileo knows this well. The Waipahu High School alum recalls the day in 1989 when the athletic director at Waconia High School in Minnesota approached him with a question:

“You’re from Hawaii, right?”

“Yeah,” replied Palileo, who at the time was coaching the Wildcats’ basketball team.

“All right. You’re coaching girls volleyball now.”

Palileo laughs at the memory.

“I had been coaching the basketball team at Waconia for three years,” he recalls. “I didn’t even play volleyball at Waipahu because they didn’t have boys volleyball at the time. I did play club volleyball, though. You know how it is in Hawaii. We played volleyball all the time.”

Today, nearly 30 years later, Palileo has an impressive heading coaching résumé that includes NCAA Tournament appearances with two different schools. He guided South Dakota State to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007 and, two years later, led Washington State to an at-large tournament berth – their first NCAA Tournament bid in seven seasons. He was named the 2009 Pac-12 Coach of the Year.

This fall, the 49-year-old Palileo will begin his fifth season as the head coach at North Texas, which competes in Conference USA.

As you might expect, the Mean Green has a distinctive Hawaiian flavor on its roster. libero/defensive specialist LekaLeka Kiner-Falefa, a sophomore out of Mid-Pacific Institute, led the Mean Green in digs last season, with 335. Last November, Palileo signed Kiner-Falefa’s former MPI teammate, right-side hitter Eimanie Thomas. Thomas is expected to redshirt this season.

“It’s always good to come home,” says Palileo. “I have a lot of [local] buddies who are in the field, and I keep in contact with them. I never want to lose that local connection.”

Palileo’s daughter, Alyvia Palileo, is expected to contribute more this season after a solid sophomore campaign. The junior setter/defensive specialist appeared in 17 matches and posted career highs in both digs (4 against Louisiana Tech) and service aces (2 against UTEP).

The elder Palileo never intended to make coaching his profession. His stint at Waconia High School was simply a way to pay the bills as he attended nearby Crown College.

“I was going to be a missionary,” explains Palileo, who earned a B.A. in missiology in 1991 and another B.A. in social science/secondary education in 1995. “But once I started coaching, I found that to be more rewarding and fulfilling. The best part is seeing the players finally get what you’re trying to teach them, when you that the light turn on. You see them get better. That’s what’s fun about coaching. It’s kind of hokey, I know, but I love making a positive impact on their lives.”

“With coaching, every day is a different day. And every year is a new year with a new team. No two years are ever alike. It’s never monotonous. Your mind is always being challenged as far as how to put a team together and build a consistent, winning program.”

After coaching at Waconia for 10 seasons, Palileo took the reins of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He posted an 85-53 record in four seasons, the best four-year mark in school history. From there, he coached South Dakota State for seven seasons, leading the program’s transition from Division II to Division I.

“We were the first program at the school to make the NCAA Tournament at the Division I level,” Palileo says. “That was in 2007, our first year of [NCAA Tournament] eligibility. It was really exciting for our team. A lot of the seniors were seniors that season, and they came to the school knowing that they only had one shot to make the tournament. So that was really special for me, to see our players be rewarded for their commitment.”

In 2008, Palileo left the Jackrabbits program and joined Washington State. In just his second season, Palileo took the Cougars to the NCAAs. In 2010, however, the team went 6-22. A new school administration was also put in place. “Not a good combination to have,” Palileo admits. The veteran coach resigned and served as an assistant coach at Ohio State before joining the Mean Green in 2013.

Texas, he says, is fertile ground for volleyball talent.

“It really is one of the biggest hotbeds of volleyball,” he says. “There are a lot of great athletes here. If you look at our roster, 12 of our players are from Texas. You don’t have to go very far to recruit kids.”

With that in mind, Palileo is looking forward for the 2017 season.

“I think this will be the most complete team that I’ve had here,” he says. “We had [two-time Conference USA Player of the Year] Carnae Dillard in 2014 and ’15, but we had younger players around her trying to play at the level she was at. Now, those same players are older, and our depth and experience level is so much better. I’m excited.”

Does Palileo follow University of Hawaii volleyball?

“Of course!” he says, laughing. “That’s my home team. I always follow them!”

Palileo even brought the Mean Green to Honolulu in the spring of 2015 to play a series of exhibition matches against Chaminade, HPU and UH.

“I don’t like to come during the fall regular season because then you don’t have time to do anything else,” Palileo explains. “But in 2015 we came out for spring break and had four days of going out and doing stuff. We were able to go whale watching, check out Haleiwa and enjoy Hanauma Bay. That’s a lot more fun and meaningful for me. We were able to let the girls really experience Hawaii.”

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