Kamalani Akeo talks with members of the womens volleyball coaching staff in 2021.
Kamalani Akeo talks with members of the women’s volleyball coaching staff in 2021.
Image courtesy of Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics

Kamalani Akeo: An unsung hero contributing to the success of Pitt volleyball

It’s the 2014 offseason, and Pitt volleyball coaches are as busy as ever recruiting, getting hundreds of emails from high school athletes asking the coaches to watch their highlight tape. In all of these highlight tapes, one girl standing about 5 feet, 8 inches from Kapolei, Hawaii, catches the eye of Pitt head coach Dan Fisher. 

He thinks he found the future libero of Pitt volleyball.

But Kamalani Akeo never wore the libero jersey. She ended up becoming the setter of Pitt volleyball and a perfect example of perseverance to associate head coach Kellen Petrone. 

“She’s just this shining example of grinding out your goals,” Petrone said. 

This gritty setter from Hawaii is Pitt volleyball’s assistant coach, and is one of the unsung heroes behind the meteoric rise of Pitt volleyball. 

When Akeo first arrived in Pittsburgh from the island of O’ahu for her first semester of college, the culture shock of the Yinzer accent or the difference in weather wasn’t a huge ordeal to her. Akeo was mostly amazed by the business and go-go-go attitude of Pittsburghers.

“Everyone has something to do or go to, or someplace to be,” Akeo said. “Things just move a little bit faster.”

At home, they don’t have this same type of urgency.

“In Hawaii, people joke about Hawaiian time,” Akeo said. “It’s like, when you are 30 minutes late, ‘Oh yeah, you are on Hawaiian time.’”

Akeo, however, adjusted to the Pittsburgh lifestyle of constant movement during her four years playing for Pitt. To Fisher and Petrone, Akeo may have molded herself with this lifestyle a little bit too much.

“She literally showed up every day to work,” Petrone said. “I remember during her senior year that [Fisher] and I had to tell her that she needed to add some other things in her life besides just volleyball and school.”

But Akeo’s dedication to volleyball alone did have its perks. She was a three-year captain for Pitt volleyball, won ACC Setter of the Year as a sophomore and earned herself All-ACC honors in 2016-2017. Her name is forever engraved into the concrete of the University of Pittsburgh Varsity Walk.

Akeo enjoys acquiring these honors, but it’s not as important as it was to return the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 years during her sophomore year.

“That year was really, really fun for me,” Akeo said. “I felt like I got a lot better over the spring and summer … I was kind of validated for how I felt, which was really good. Our team was great and nobody expected us to be that good this year.”

Fisher believes that even some of Akeo’s teammates were surprised by the Panthers’ success.

“They were a lot of really good players that worked hard to become great,” Fisher said. “In many ways, we probably did more with that group than they ever dreamed as they came in.”

Akeo’s underrated 2016 squad started an active streak of eight straight seasons of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament — a streak that players expect to continue when playing for Pitt volleyball.

Senior Kamalani Akeo (3) and redshirt senior Angela Seman (16) celebrate during the third set of a game in 2018. (TPN File Photo)

In these eight consecutive seasons of postseason play for Pitt volleyball, Akeo was with the program for all but the 2019 season and 2020 fall season. During these years away from the team, Akeo lived overseas even further away from Hawaii, playing volleyball professionally in Slovenia. 

During the second wave of the pandemic in late 2020, Akeo’s professional career had to halt.

“[Fisher] kept checking in with me because COVID was rising again,” Akeo said. “He was looking for volunteers in the spring. He called me every two weeks in December and was like, ‘Let me know if you think the league is going to shut down or what’s going to happen.’”

Then, once Akeo’s league officially shut down in the winter, Akeo headed back to the States and agreed with Fisher to work as a volunteer assistant coach for just the 2020/2021 spring season.

Akeo’s tenure lasted far longer than just one season. After the 2020 spring postseason, then-Director of Operations Peter Manguiat was hired as an assistant coach at Cal Poly, leaving an open spot for Akeo to take rather than returning overseas.

Akeo took the director of operations job, earning herself a nonvolunteer position on the Pitt coaching staff.

Petrone — Akeo’s former coach, now coworker — saw coaching potential from Akeo during her time as a three-year captain.

“She showed she was going to lead by example and lead by her work ethic,” Petrone said. “When someone shows an interest in developing their game at as high of a level that she did, as well as wanting to be a leader that early, there are signs that point to her wanting to be a coach pretty quickly.”

Kamalani Akeo poses for a photo in the Fitzgerald Field House. (Kelechi Anucha | Staff Photographer)

The director of operations job also gave Akeo a special opportunity — an opportunity to stay and coach her little sister Lexis Akeo, a sophomore at the time.

“It had its difficulties, but it was amazing at the same time,” Kamalani Akeo said about coaching Lexis Akeo. “I know that what we shared over those four seasons is really, really special. For us to be in each other’s lives as an adult, you just don’t get to be near your family, so that was really special to me.”

In Kapolei, Lexis and Kamalani Akeo were two little girls running around the volleyball gym or the baseball park. 

In Pittsburgh, Lexis and Kamalani Akeo are the two sisters who played major roles in Pitt volleyball’s success. 

Akeo’s favorite memories as a coach and player always include her younger sister, Lexis.

“One of my favorite memories as a coach was making it to the Final Four the first time,” Akeo said. “Seeing it come to fruition and being able to hug the staff after, I remember that clearly, and I remember Lexis jumping into my arms.” 

Akeo’s senior night in 2018 is another memory that sticks out to her.

“All of my family was there and my sister’s recruiting class was there — Kellen made it work out that way,” Akeo said. “And I’m pretty sure that was the first time we sold out the Field House … I remember all the fans and winning the game. It kind of was surreal. I remember it very movie-like.”

After her promotion to assistant coach in February of 2023, Akeo now reviews the same type of highlight tapes that she once sent to Fisher and Petrone. And as a recruiter, Akeo brings value that Petrone and Fisher themselves don’t necessarily give — the ability to show concrete proof the recruits can have long-term success at Pitt.

“Recruits can see that, ‘Hey, I came here from far away, I had success and now I am back coaching and I am successful in my coaching career,’” Fisher said. “I think modeling is really important, and she’s done a great job at that.”

To Petrone, the recruiting “rizz” — short for charisma — that Akeo brings outside of her ability to relate to the recruits is simple — she is warm and welcoming. 

Akeo is one of the building blocks of Pitt volleyball’s rapid upswing in the past eight years.

“She laid the foundation,” Petrone said, “and helped lay the foundation of the success we are having now.”

Over Akeo’s eight years growing Pitt volleyball, she has started to enjoy the hecticness of the Yinzer-filled city. 

“I have come to like Pittsburgh a lot,” Akeo said. “It is a lot faster … but that was just me when I was 18 years old. Now I am like, I love how fast things move, I love how there are things to do.”

The go-go-go attitude of Pittsburgh and the connection she has with Fisher and Petrone makes Akeo happy with her role as an assistant coach for Pitt volleyball.

“I plan to be here for as long as I can, honestly,” Akeo said. “I love it here and I love our staff.”