Hawaii was widely viewed around the Big West as a rebuilding team going into the 2017 soccer season.
Turned out, for good reasons.
The Rainbow Wahine faded down the stretch once again and were not in contention for the Big West tournament going into the final week of the season.
UH got drubbed 3-0 and 4-0 in road losses at Cal State Fullerton and UC Riverside, bringing things to a merciful end at 6-10-1 and 1-6-1 in the BWC. The Wahine finished last, just where they were predicted to be by the league’s coaches in the preseason.
The high point came at home against UC Santa Barbara on Oct. 12, when Sonest Furtado scored her first career Big West goals (plural!) to lead the Wahine to a 2-1 come-from-behind victory.
UH went a respectable 5-4 in nonconference play — highlighted by a win at Arizona State — but faced an uphill battle in conference after it came away empty in a 1-0 loss in the BWC opener at UC Davis, a game UH felt it resoundingly outplayed its opponent. Opportunities against UC Irvine, Cal State Northridge and Cal Poly were missed at home.
UH’s downfall continued to be its pitfalls on the road; it’s lost 12 such conference games since the 2015 season. It is 2-20-3 in six years of BWC mainland games.
The Wahine may have had eight outgoing seniors, but were exceptionally young where it counted — on the field. That’s where they played as many as six or seven freshmen together, and had only a few experienced juniors and seniors to call upon.
“We got a lot of quality minutes all year long for our very young players,” seventh-year coach Michele Nagamine said after the UCR loss. “I think there were some very good learning experiences we’re going to take away and build on.”
“The seniors told (the younger players) ‘you guys can be the team that really turns this around next year. Remember how you feel getting to the last week.’ ” Nagamine said.
Things were exacerbated when senior defenders Paige Okazaki and Bo Samson went down with knee injuries, just prior to Big West play in Samson’s case and in the second game at Long Beach State for Okazaki. UH was very, very young in the back, and it showed. It was going to take some divine intervention for the Wahine to make their first Big West tournament after that.
“There’s no doubt that we missed Paige and Bo. Losing two senior defenders, all that experience, I felt horrible for them,” Nagamine said. “They waited so long to have this season. Paige was on her way to having a fantastic season. … Bo doesn’t even get to experience conference play. I feel horrible for those kids. But in the same breath, we kept rolling and found ways to put together competitive performances. We didn’t win, but at least now we’re competing.”
Despite UH’s last-place finish, Furtado could be in line for some Big West all-conference hardware after finishing second in goals among BWC players (seven) to this point. Junior midfielder Raisa Strom-Okimoto also put together a decent season, with three goals and two assists, giving her 10 and 10 for her career.
Notable player losses are:
>> Forward Sonest Furtado, who led UH in goals (seven), assists (four), points (18), and shots on goal (30). The shifty finisher from Waianae High concluded her career in sole possession of 10th in UH career goals with 14, and tied for 10th with Krystal Pascua in points at 35.
>> Utility player Dani Crawford, who scored five career goals with two assists (one apiece this season). Crawford, a four-year starter, played all over the field since arriving from Moses Lake, Wash., in 2014. She finished up her career in the midfield after beginning it as a converted defender.
>> Center back Paige Okazaki, a four-year player and three-year starter from El Dorado Hills, Calif. Okazaki came on strong as a leader the last two years, and unfortunately had a potentially big senior year cut short with a devastating knee injury in the early minutes at Long Beach State. She had two career goals and an assist.
>> Holding midfielder Keala Parker-Lee, a Sacred Hearts graduate who played a season at Loyola Marymount before coming to UH. She was a full-time starter this season after mostly coming off the bench the last two years. She scored a goal as a sophomore and had two assists as a senior.
>> Forward Kellsie Gleason, a California native and a part-time starter over the last three years after transferring from Auburn. Gleason’s size (6-0) made her a unique threat up top and on set pieces. Her most consistent action came in 2015, when she started 10 games. Gleason had three career goals and an assist.
>> Defender Bo Samson, a Sacred Hearts Academy product and a two-year UH player after transferring from Northeastern. Samson appeared in 17 games off the bench as a junior and started five games as a senior before going down with a season-ending injury at Grand Canyon, just prior to conference play.
>> Four-year reserve midfielder Spenser Jaye and two-year backup goalkeeper Evelyn Fierros were the other outgoing seniors.
UH has a few notable players slated to come back next year in attacking midfielder Raisa Strom-Okimoto, midfielder Sarah Lau, center back Cristina Drossos and goalkeeper Alexis Mata. Drossos and Mata showed notable improvement as their first starting season progressed.
Others who could be asked to step into a larger role include Leialoha Medeiros, Tia Furuta, Izzy Deutsch, Randi Fontes, Kiri Dale, Mikaelah Johnson-Griggs, Taylor Mason, Lillie French and Sammi Walker.
As much as UH has struggled, especially in Big West play, there are things it has done well. It has engaged the local soccer community and enjoyed some big crowds. Nagamine has been an active voice in the UH athletic department. And perhaps most notably, the Wahine have consistently graduated.
UH, a recent recipient of the United Soccer Coaches Team Academic Award, posted a 3.49 team GPA for the 2016-17 academic calendar. UH was the only Big West school to receive it for that period and UH has picked it up all six possible times in Nagamine’s tenure.
Those are some of the reasons why UH athletic director David Matlin and Nagamine agreed to a three-year extension over the summer. Nagamine, who just coached the final year of her current contract, could have a finalized deal in the coming weeks, but it still could be tweaked.
Nagamine continues to try to adapt to the challenges of UH’s unique geographical circumstances.
Besides picking up the occasional local prospect, she plans to shift her recruiting strategy internationally as well as east of the Rockies, with less investment in the hotbed of California. UH already has some commitments for its 2018 class, but still could use a contributing forward after getting big years up top from Addie Steiner and Furtado over the last couple years.
“The reality is we don’t get to see a California kid as often as our competition does,” Nagamine said. “We don’t have the ability to go drive to the pockets, corners of California to find these kids on these obscure little club teams who are hungry, very determined and very spicy. We don’t have the means to do that, the budget. So what we’re going to do is look into areas that our competitors cannot go.”
UH took a recruiting hit with Pearl City class of 2019 striker Sunshine Fontes decommitting verbally from Manoa and announcing herself for national power UCLA. Fontes, the younger sister of UH freshman Randi Fontes, is a member of the U-17 women’s national team and recently scored in a scrimmage against the U-18 team.
Nagamine, an outsized personality in the local soccer community, remains resolute.
“I don’t think we’re banging our heads against the wall,” she said. This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for us, but what we did was, I thought, we were more competitive in conference this year than we were last year. We made teams work for wins, and that’s what this is about. I think our future’s bright and we’re getting there. We’re just going to keep plugging away and not cry about anything. It is what it is and we’re going to be better.”