The Hawaii soccer team’s long-awaited Big West breakthrough could soon go from farfetched fantasy to doable destiny.
The Rainbow Wahine (7-5-1, 2-2 Big West), who are in a three-way tie for fourth at the midpoint of conference play, have a prime opportunity this weekend to set themselves up for a run at their first Big West tournament. If they can score a win or a couple of ties at Cal Poly (1-11-4, 1-3-1) on Friday or UC Santa Barbara (9-6, 2-2) on Sunday, they are in better-than-ever position to finish in the requisite top four heading into the final two games of the regular season against UC Riverside (10-2-3, 1-2-2) and Cal State Fullerton (3-10-2, 0-3-1) at home next week.
UH has never won more than three games in its six previous Big West seasons — a tie for fifth in 2013 at 3-4-1. The last time it was 2-2 through four games was in 2016, but Addie Steiner-led UH went 0-3-1 in its last four to finish in a tie for sixth.
On the rare occasions UH has been close in the final week of play, it’s always come down to various scenarios from other teams that have never panned out in UH’s favor.
“I told our team the other day that it’s a weird position to be in, because we’re actually in the driver’s seat,” coach Michele Nagamine said. “We control our own destiny. ‘Well, we need this team to show up in purple and play with their hair like this on that day.’ I mean, there’s so many things you can remember from seasons past, right? Where you needed so many things to happen. ‘Well, if Irvine wins, but Long Beach ties, Davis gets a blah-blah, then we go. Yay!’ It was always like this three-case scenario. Now, it’s ‘win this game, win this game.’ We’re in the driver’s seat, and I think we like that.”
While UH is in solid shape right now driving up the Central California coast, there’s little margin for error as there are four teams within a point of the Wahine, above or below, in the standings. The Wahine’s bye week last week did little to clarify things while the rest of the league beat up on itself, except that UC Irvine (3-0-2) and Long Beach State (3-0-1) are firmly ahead for two of the four tournament spots. Those two account for UH’s two league losses to this point.
You can look at the jumbled Big West standings here.
“We were told the results and stuff (last week), but for me personally it’s not really a big thing to look at people’s records, because we can only control what we can control,” senior Sarah Lau said this week before the team flew out. “I think we did our job winning two games (so far), because that put us in the position we are right now. Not just because people are tied, people are losing, it’s because we did our job. We just need to keep doing our job this weekend and the following weekend and things are going to work out.”
There’s a couple things the Wahine have going for themselves: They have the best 1-2 scoring combo in the league this year, with senior Raisa Strom-Okimoto and sophomore Lei Medeiros combining for 15 of the team’s 23 netted balls. Strom-Okimoto is second in the BWC with eight scores and Medeiros is tied for third with seven; they are Nos. 2 and 3 in points, which includes assists.
Strom-Okimoto, with two goals in a 3-2 win over UC Davis on Oct. 7, moved into a tie for sixth on the UH career scoring chart.
And junior Lex Mata has had a strong season between the pipes. She hasn’t always gotten a result in goal, but she’s kept the Wahine in games they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance. She’s second in Big West saves at 69, with a fourth-best save percentage of .802.
“I’m so glad bye week is over,” Mata said. “It’s hard to sit back and have a week of practice when we know our competitors are all playing each other. I dunno, me personally, I just want to get out on the field and play again because we have such a good chance.”
First up is Cal Poly, a team UH has not beaten in eight all-time meetings. It is 0-5-1 against the Mustangs in Big West play, but the draw came last season at home, amounting to a mini-breakthrough at the time.
UH looks to a couple more mini-breakthroughs on this trip. It is 0-3 in Big West play at both Cal Poly and UCSB.
“The good thing is we’ve played the Irvines and the Long Beaches,” Nagamine said. “What worries me is that some of the teams we still have yet to play have traditionally been late bloomers, late peakers in the season. They’re dealing with some injuries. Santa Barbara’s been consistent all year. … We can’t overlook Cal Poly either. Cal Poly at home, very, very difficult place to play. Very physical team. So we’re hoping that maybe our pace helps us out in the first game on Friday. Sunday games are always a big question mark about which teams show up. But I like our chances getting in.”