Kai stops by

Natasha Kai put her speed to good use in UH 11-on-11 drills.
Natasha Kai put her speed to good use in UH 11-on-11 drills.

The Olympics are underway, so perhaps it’s only fitting that Hawaii soccer’s greatest player, former gold medal Olympian Natasha Kai, showed up at Rainbow Wahine preseason practice this week eager to lend a hand.

The tradeoff: You have to lend Kai your ear, too, especially if she joins in on practice like she did on Tuesday.

“It’s always good to come back here and see new faces,” Kai said. “Hopefully inspire them to … one day follow in my shoes and make it to the next level. It’s a different generation for sure from when I was here and the generation I grew up with. It’s hard work. You gotta be willing to put in the work, blood, sweat, tears into this sport. Nothing comes easy. A lot of them are learning the hard way.”

There’s no doubt her appearance on the practice pitch for 11-on-11s was uplifting — and daunting — for many of the Wahine players, particularly the local girls who grew up watching Kai tear it up. Kai, back in the pro ranks as a striker for Sky Blue FC, is on a league break for the Olympics.

She was mostly content to help set up “teammates” for opportunities with some nifty passing, but a couple times Kai flashed that killer instinct. She scored on a counterattack on the same practice field she used to dwell.

“She played at the best of the best levels,” sophomore Raisa Strom-Okimoto said. “Playing with her, trying to play at that level gives us something to look up to, to set our standards for this upcoming season.

“I would always look up to her. I remember coming to the UH games, watching her play,” added Strom-Okimoto, a former sideline ball girl.

Freshman Tia Furuta, the 2016 high school state player of the year out of Mililani, was on the same youth team as Strom-Okimoto and remembers shagging balls for the ferocious competitor Kai, who exists practically in her own tier in the UH record books from her Rainbow Wahine years in the early 2000s.

“(Kai) was always an inspiration to me. She definitely stands out,” Furuta said.

As far as Kai’s temperament Tuesday, Furuta said: “She’s still the same. She’s getting better every year, too. She’s super fast and she has really good footwork. She’s giving really good pointers to us out there on the field.”

For the uninitiated, hearing Kai talk can be a little jarring; she is basically unfiltered (refreshingly so) and has little time for niceties. Speaking of jars, UH coach Michele Nagamine has been known to employ a “swear jar” system with her teams.

Were Kai to adhere to a dollar for each transgression, Nagamine would be a much wealthier person.

Kai joked about it on Twitter between Tuesday’s two practice sessions.

“Tasha’s just so passionate,” the coach said with a laugh. “Every now and then, something slips out. It’s just part of what makes her her.”

Kai attended multiple games during the 3-14-1 campaign of 2015 and sometimes couldn’t hide her frustration.

“I love her because she always keeps it real,” Nagamine said. “You always know where you stand with her. I think she’s very critical of the team because she cares. She takes a lot of pride in the fact that this is her school and this is where she played. She had some frustrating moments in the stands last year. I know we did some things that kind of drove her crazy and I think she left a couple games early.”

Nagamine said Kai noticed some improvement in demeanor when she came out for practice.

Kai scored on this play (of course).
Kai scored on this play (of course).

“Tasha always keeps it real, so when she says that something is better and improved, you know that she means it,” the coach said. “She’s not just going to tell you what you want to hear. That’s not who she is.”

For Kai, this pro season has been a rejuvenating experience. Sky Blue is 6-5-4, fifth place in the 10-team league. She’s tied for the team lead in goals (three) and yellow cards (two).

“It’s been fun. I’ve trained for a good year and a half straight, hopeful I’d get picked up,” Kai said. “I got my chance and I’m seizing the moment, having fun and just taking it day by day. I lost the love of the sport for a long time, five years actually. It’s good to feel that passion that I once had when I was 7.

“I think people at the end of the day forget to have fun. When you play the best soccer, you have fun.”

Kai surveyed the proceedings.
Kai surveyed the proceedings.

UH hopes to channel some of that attitude into success closer to home. The Wahine take on Division II Tusculum College of Tennessee in a 7 p.m. Friday exhibition out at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium. Tusculum is here to play a couple of the local D-II schools as well.

“I think we’re very, very eager to take the field against somebody other than ourselves,” Nagamine said. “I think Tusculum is going to be a good opponent with a big roster. Traditional conference powerhouse. They had a rough year last year like we did, but traditionally they’re in the top three teams in their conference.”

Among newcomers, Nagamine said freshman forward Mikaela Johnson-Griggs has impressed, while among returnees Strom-Okimoto has made serious strides.

If you’re going out to WPSS, don’t expect to see everybody in action. Nagamine said some players will be held out of the exhibition until they reach some fitness benchmarks.

“We won’t be at full force on Friday but certainly we’ll be ready to go,” she said.

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