There’s always next year

UH soccer's 2016 seniors couldn't become the class to author a Big West tournament breakthrough.
UH soccer’s 2016 seniors couldn’t become the class to author a Big West tournament breakthrough.

If everything had gone to plan, the Hawaii soccer team would still be on the mainland right now, in figurative uncharted territory. The four-team Big West tournament begins Thursday at Long Beach State.

Plans went awry.

That 7-1-1 record through the nonconference season — the best nine-game mark in program history — went all for naught when it came to achieving the goal that’s hung over the program since 2012, when UH joined the Big West: make the tournament.

But there were other goals this year, specifically. Some had to do with program morale and playing competitively on a game-to-game basis coming off the abysmal 3-14-1 campaign of 2015. UH was able to check those off.

The way the Big West schedule worked out this year, UH (9-6-2, 2-5-1 BWC) faced its toughest opposition on the back end. The Rainbow Wahine faced, in order, Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge. Those teams finished third, fourth, second and first.

UH played Long Beach to a scoreless draw, in a game the Rainbow Wahine had golden opportunities to win. They then got blasted on their senior day by Fullerton, 3-0, and dropped tough one-goal decisions at Irvine and Northridge when they needed to win both to keep hopes alive.

After the 1-0 loss at CSUN in double overtime sealed Michele Nagamine’s sixth season in Manoa, she reflected on what the team accomplished. It was Nagamine’s first winning season and the first for the program since 2008; she considered it “overall a great season.”

She acknowledged there’s plenty of room to grow.

“We got quite predictable. With all of our games online, for VidSwap, our opponents study us,” Nagamine said. “They study film and the tendencies of each opponent become pretty obvious. I think we prepare so much for each opponent that we forget we have to balance it out and I think we got a little predictable in our attack at the end of the season. First we were always going wide, then we were looking vertically.

“We need to put a little more focus on that final third. Now our technical ability is pretty good. We’ve taught the kids how to be competitive and win, and to end with a winning season after all is said and done is something we’re pretty proud of.”

Sophomore midfielder Raisa Strom-Okimoto and senior forward Addie Steiner did the bulk of the damage on offense for UH. Strom-Okimoto (six goals, eight assists) is tied for fourth among Big West players in points at 20. Her assists are tied for best in the conference.

Steiner led the team with eight goals, fourth in the conference, and put in four game-winners this year. The Northwestern transfer finished a stellar career with 27 in the net.

Monk Berger completed a four-year career in goal by tying the UH single-season record of seven shutouts she set as a freshman. She also has the career shutouts record at 16.

UH will miss Storm Kenui and T.J. Reyno on its back line. Both ably accepted and performed on defense this year after being asked to play out of their natural positions. Kenui in particular was a force at center back and should be considered for an all-conference team again.

Kenui finished with seven goals and six assists while filling in on defense throughout her four years. She chipped in a game-winner this year against Sacramento State.

Lauren Takai, Madison Reed, Ryan Daniel and Elise Wassner are also out as seniors. They were counted on for meaningful minutes at various times over their careers — Takai and Reed this year especially, Daniel and Wassner earlier.

UH finished in a three-way tie for sixth in a very competitive Big West. The closest the Wahine came to making the tournament remains in 2013 when they were 3-4-1 for a fifth-place tie.

To make the tournament, they have to solve their conference road woes; they are 0-8 in those games over the last two years. Losing at last-place Cal Poly and then UC Santa Barbara by a goal to open BWC play this year was a tough hole to claw out of.

“I think there’s a little bit of, I know that everybody is super happy and excited about the direction we’re heading, but there’s also a little bit of a sting as well because games against Long Beach, (and) playing Santa Barbara and Cal Poly right out of the gate,” Nagamine said. “It was tough; they started getting into some foul trouble and had some injuries later in the season. The demise of programs like Santa Barbara and Cal Poly, we’re all not going anywhere but we wish we could have those games back.”

Meanwhile, Nagamine’s contract is good through the 2017 season. It’s possible that athletic director David Matlin could sit down with her soon about the future of the program. It’s unusual in college athletics, though not unheard of, to let a coach play out the last year of their contract. Recruiting is one reason why.

There’s a lot to replace going into next year, and instant-impact players like Steiner don’t often fall into a program’s lap.

Nagamine said she expects “seven or eight” players added in the upcoming signing class.

“The seniors have left us in a very good place,” she said. “Now it’s give (the team) some time off and get cracking over the winter.”