Wahine eyeing opportunity

Sarah Lau, center, had a career-defining moment during Hawaii's road trip last weekend. / Photo by Craig T. Kojima, Star-Advertiser

UPDATE: UH could not make the most of its opportunity, as it fell 3-2 to Long Beach State on Thursday night.

For the moment, forget the Big West tournament. At no point in Hawaii soccer’s seven years in the BWC have the Rainbow Wahine been above .500 in conference play.

That can change today, if UH (6-4-1, 1-1 BWC) can get past a team they’ve yet to defeat as a conference member — Long Beach State — in a 7 p.m. televised match at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium. The Beach is 5-4-2, with its only league game so far a 1-1 draw against Cal State Fullerton.

“I’ve showed the team where we’ve fallen over the last several years,” UH coach Michele Nagamine said Wednesday. “We’re just so much better than we have been in the past. We’re more focused and we’re more organized. We’ve taken better care of our bodies. It’s not to say the teams before this team were bad, that’s not it at all. It’s just we’ve been more organized and disciplined about how we recover. I think we’ve got fresher legs at this point than we’ve had in the past.

“I’m interested to see how we stack up against one of the best teams in the conference. … (Today) is an opportunity for us to really show the progress that we’ve made. I hope the team is able to really see the fruits of their labor.”

Since 2012, UH is 0-4-2 against the 49ers, including 0-1-1 at home. It did manage a 0-0 draw for LBSU’s last trip here, in 2016.

“It’s been rough in the past, but we have a totally different team, new attitude,” senior co-captain Raisa Strom-Okimoto said. “Going into these next two games (including UC Davis on Sunday), we’re really excited to get two wins. That’d be great.”

The Wahine are energized coming off a 1-1 road trip that could’ve either been much better, or much worse, depending on one’s perspective. UH was victimized by last-second goals against both UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge. UH dropped the former 1-0 in double overtime with literally one second left before it would’ve been called a draw. But in the latter, after giving up another goal during the 10-second countdown (this time in regulation after leading almost the whole way), the Wahine rebounded to post a 2-1 overtime win over the Matadors on Sunday. Sarah Lau had the golden goal on a shot and follow-up rebound at the goal line, set up on a pretty cross from Daelenn Tokunaga.

It was one of the strangest, most unique weekends in the history of Wahine soccer.

“I think in the history of soccer, period,” Nagamine said with a disbelieving laugh. “It was just a series of kind of fluke occurrences that happened. They say when it rains it pours, and that’s exactly what happened to us.”

For the late letdown against CSUN, it was deja vu all over again.

“The state of disbelief — I was watching the video — the crowd was, ‘nooo!’, hands on their heads, arms in the air,” Nagamine said.

Said Strom Okimoto, “It was rough. It still stings to this day. I’m sure it does for everyone else too. … It’s so indescribable, the moment. Your heart drops. Your stomach turns. Two seconds (left). But I’ll be honest, it’s good that it happened at the beginning of the season. We worked on it at practice today. And so, never again. Never again.”

Nagamine was closely watching her team’s body language going into overtime.

“I think we were most proud of the kids (then). Anybody would understand if you just broke down,” she said. “Like, how could we let that happen again? People were expecting the worst, except for our team. Sarah Lau stepped up and she just squashed it. ‘We’re resetting.’ Our seniors took control, our co-captains, Sarah Lau in particular. She just basically grabbed the team together and said, ‘We’re doing this. This is how it’s going to be. We’re not putting our heads down.’ She was so inspiring in her play after that. I was really, really happy for Sarah that she could lead us in that way that she’s wanted to lead us for so long.”

Strom-Okimoto said, “I think Sarah did a really good job bringing the team together. We all did. We all just, ‘hey, this is us. Whatever happened, happened. We can’t dwell on it.’ But I was really proud of Sarah for stepping up and taking that leadership role.”

For Lau, who’s bounced between positions over her four-year career, it represented a defining moment.

“Absolutely, there’s no question about it. That was the most complete game that Sarah’s played,” Nagamine said. “She’s always had a lot of emotion in her play, but to be inspiring to people is a very, very hard thing to do.”

Strom-Okimoto has a team-high six goals for the season and 16 career. She has sole possession of ninth on the UH career list, with Veronica Flores’ 17 for eighth place up next.

Lau now has five career goals, including two game-winners.

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