Aiona named Head Basketball Coach at Hawaii Hilo

Kaniela Aiona is the next men’s basketball coach at the University of Hawai`i Hilo, announced today by Vulcan athletic director Patrick Guillen.

For Aiona, it is a literal return to his earliest basketball roots.

A Big Island native, Aiona is just the sixth head coach in the long storied history of the program. He is a Honoka`a High School graduate, who attended Vulcan basketball camps as a child. His parents Tommy and Micci met while attending UHH, and his brothers Kamaki and Kamaui are Vulcan alumni. Tommy Aiona is in the St. Joseph High School Hall of Fame.

“This is a dream come true for me,” Aiona said. “Mahalo to President David Lassner, Chancellor Bonnie Irwin, Athletic Director Patrick Guillen and the search committee members for believing in me. I will work tirelessy to fulfill our shared vision for the UH Hilo men’s basketball program.”

Aiona has spent the past five seasons as the head coach at Menlo College in Atherton, Calif., turning the Oaks program around. He took over a team that went 3-23 in 2014-15, improving to 20-11 record in just three seasons (’17-18). Aiona’s squad went 19-11 this past year and finished second in the Golden State Athletic Conference. They qualified for the 2019-20 NAIA national tournament that was ultimately canceled because of COVID-19.

“I am beyond excited to announce Kaniela Aiona as our next men’s basketball head coach, bringing him home and welcoming back one of our own to lead the Vulcans,” said Vulcan athletic director Patrick Guillen.  “In our search process, successful head coaching experience and local fit was extremely important, and we found the perfect man in Coach Aiona.  He left the Big Island 19 years ago to play collegiate basketball then afterwards began his coaching career where he has honed his skills and gained the knowledge and experience to lead our program here at UH Hilo.”  

Menlo ranked first in the NAIA this past year in three-point shooting percentage (.429) and averaged 10.7 treys per game. Menlo was ranked as high as No. 16 in the NAIA national poll. Prior to Aiona’s arrival, the Oaks had never qualified for the GSAC Tournament nor the NAIA Championships. Aiona led Menlo to its first GSAC tournament and NAIA Division I Championship berth in program history.

Aiona’s record over the past three seasons with the Oaks is 52-34, and his career mark in five years at Menlo is 72-71.

“Kaniela has proven to be an excellent recruiter, teacher of the game and life skills mentor,” Guillen added.  “Most recently his five-year run at Menlo College as the head coach has been nothing short of impressive.  He places a high-priority in student-athlete experience built on high academic achievement, athletic excellence and teaching a team culture of gratitude, service and Aloha.  He now comes home with his wife Kelly to lead a program he grew up idolizing while attending our games and Vulcan basketball camps as a kid.  I know our community will be just as excited as I am in bringing Kaniela and his ohana back home to the Big Island to work together and lead our men’s basketball team back to national prominence.”

Aiona’s Menlo teams have had a 3.0+ Grade Point Average in each of his five seasons, and he has had ten NAIA Scholar Athletes since 2017, more than any other school in the country (3.5+ GPA).

Prior to his post at Menlo, he served in assistant roles at Saint Leo University in Tampa, Florida (2013-15), Benedictine University in Chicago (2011-13), Lake Forest College in Chicago (2008-10), Central Methodist in Fayette, Missouri (2006-08) and Webster University (St. Louis).

Webster is his alma mater (2005), where he was all-conference on the court and in the classroom. A four-year letterwinner and two-year starter, Aiona averaged double figures in scoring and still lists in the school’s all-time Top 20 list in 15 different categories. He helped lead his team to two conference championships and a NCAA Division III tournament berth. As a senior, he was named the Webster President’s Award winner, given to the top overall student-athlete.

Aiona earned his Masters of Education from Central Methodist in 2008.

“I have a great respect for the many great players and coaches that have called UH Hilo home,” he said. “UHH basketball has influenced my foundation. Some of my fondest memories include attending Vulcan Camp as a child, interacting with Vulcan players and coaches, roaming the Civic all day and watching the Big Island Invitational Tournaments of the 1990’s.

“The people of Hilo hold a special place in my heart. It is a honor to return home with my family to lead the UH Hilo basketball program and inspire future generations of Hawaiian Islanders to follow their passion. I am humbled by this opportunity to serve the Hilo and Big Island Ohana. We will be committed to developing outstanding young men who strive for excellence on and off the court.”

Kaniela is married to wife Kelly, and they have a son (Kaleihoa) and another child on the way.

Aiona will begin duties at UH Hilo on June 1.

“I want to mahalo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin for her support during this process,” Guillen said. “Also a big thanks to our search committee members Kula Oda (Chair), Russ Blunck, Dr. Randy Hirokawa and Roxanne Levenson for doing a great job in reviewing and interviewing candidates that led to this hire and exciting announcement.”  
Bob Wilson (Former UHH Basketball Coach and AD at Vanguard University)
“I remember Kaniela coming to our Vulcan basketball camps as a teenager and was proud to see him earn a scholarship to play collegiately on the mainland. I have followed his playing career and professional career and have been so proud to see him develop as a coach. He has done a great job at Menlo, not an easy task.  What he has been able to accomplish there is very impressive. He is a natural fit at UHH and is a great story coming back home to lead a program he grew up idolizing.”
Herb Livsey (NBA Lead Scout for the Denver Nuggets)
“I have known Coach Aiona for many years.  Personally, he is a fine man who is very respectful, smart and a great husband and father.  Cannot speak higher of him as a person. Professionally, he knows the game inside and out.  He is a constant learner and an excellent recruiter. His players play hard for him, are well-prepared and know their roles.  They are well-disciplined and organized.  Hilo is my second home, and having been involved with the basketball program since the 1970’s, I cannot think of a better fit and coach than Kaniela.”
Bill O’Rear (ex-UHH player/ assistant coach):
“Kaniela Aiona is a great choice to lead the University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s basketball program. I first saw Kaniela as a Vulcan Camper, then go onto a highly successful prep career at Honoka`a High School. He then had a productive college career at Webster University. He has done an outstanding coaching job at Menlo College. His team earned a trip to the NAIA National Championship Tournament this past year in a coronavirus-shortened season. He has developed a solid recruiting net on the mainland, including throughout the talent-rich state of California. He’s also a young Big Island guy who has worked hard to earn his shot at becoming the new Vulcan coach. Good luck to Kaniela and the Vulcan program in moving forward.” 
Rhett Soliday (Head Basketball Coach, Vanguard University)
 “Kaniela is all class and a really tough competitor.  I admire him because he is always very calm and poised in the way he leads his team. He does an excellent job developing his players, and has many four-year guys who have all improved tremendously under his leadership.  He runs an excellent offensive and defensive system that is well-organized and hard to prepare for.  His teams defend very hard and do all the little things to win. He makes excellent adjustments in game situations, and I believe they were the best second-half team in our conference due to their ability to make great adjustments at halftime. He has also created a great culture at Menlo and it’s obvious his players love and respect him.  The fans have come out and supported his impressive work.”

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