In 2018, the Hawaii soccer team challenged itself by kicking off the season against No. 11 Texas A&M.
That resulted in a 4-0 defeat. Things get tougher on paper in this year’s opener, as the young Rainbow Wahine host No. 5 USC at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Manoa Lower Campus.
UH is playing its first four games of the season on its grass practice field because of damage to its regular playing surface at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium. It’s the first time since the 1999 season — when UH was between homes at Ala Wai Field and WPSS — that the Wahine will play multiple games on campus.
USC (17-2-3 last year) is lengthy and athletic. The Trojans, who made the NCAA round of 16 before being eliminated on penalty kicks by eventual national champion Florida State, provide a stiff first test for a UH group that lost 76.7 percent of its goal scoring from its fifth-place Big West (4-4) squad of last year (9-7-1 overall).
Gone are Big West offensive player of the year Raisa Strom-Okimoto, fellow first-teamer Leialoha Medeiros and four-year veteran Sarah Lau.
“Raisa, Sarah, Lei, they’re all really good players and it was amazing to play with them,” midfielder Izzy Deutsch said. “But I think this year is really going to be a big year for us because we’re going to have new people stepping up, taking on those roles. Just I think we’re going to be really cohesive this year, as a whole.”
— Hawaii Warrior World (@hawaiiwworld) August 21, 2019
UH fell agonizingly short of making its first Big West tournament, losing to last-place Cal State Fullerton on senior night. The team’s dream of making its first four-team Big West tournament was deferred to this year, with the Wahine picked to finish seventh by the league’s head coaches.
Ninth-year coach Michele Nagamine will count on experience and stability in the back line to filter up through the ranks to a new generation of strikers in a 3-3-4 alignment. When all else fails, she can throw her 30-player roster at opponents. Twenty of those 30 are freshmen or sophomores.
“We are pretty well set defensively. We have a lot of confidence in our ability to be organized and create at least challenges for our opponents,” Nagamine said. “We don’t have a lot of big gaps, and everybody’s on the same page. Pretty confident there and happy about that.”
UH will look to its six-player leadership committee — Kiri Dale, Mikaelah Johnson-Griggs, Cristina Drossos, Lex Mata, Natalie Daub and Elena Palacios — to set the tone of communication on the field. Among those, Dale, Drossos and Mata are captains.
UH won’t have portable seating set up at its field, so if you’re going, bring your own chairs or blankets to sit on. Fans can sit on the mauka side of the field, either on the short hillside fronting the UH football practice field or on top of the football field itself. The plan is to have a concessions tent set up nearby. Parking, like other UH lower campus events, is available in the structure for $5 if you get there early enough. Admission is free.
Here’s the full position breakdown:
Returnees: #6 Madison Moore (R-Sr.); #9 McKenzie Moore (So.); #10 Daelenn Tokunaga, (So.); #21 Claire Jo Diede (So.); #26 Tia Furuta (R-Jr.)
Gains: #20 Batya Bagully (Fr.); #22 Malia Faramarzi (Fr.); #30 Kelci Sumida (Fr.); #32 Kayla Watanabe (R-Sr.)
Losses: #20 Raisa Strom-Okimoto (4 seasons)
Summary: The theme of the reconstructed group of attackers could be called “Moore Watanabe.” Madison Moore, a Kauai native and former Long Beach State reserve who sat out last year per conference transfer rules, has carved out a spot on the left for her final season. McKenzie Moore, set up on the right side, is a more technical and systematic player from when she netted one goal as a freshman. Watanabe, a Mid-Pacific alumna who will get prime looks at center forward, had nine goals, including a handful of game-winners, in a four-year career at Idaho. Nagamine calls the intense, physical Watanabe “my Tutu Ninja” because she’s “kind of the old lady of the group.” Tokunaga (two goals last year), Sumida, Diede, Faramarzi and Bagully open the season as backups, while Furuta could return around conference play after missing last season with an ACL injury.
Michele Nagamine: “It’s a little bit different, because last year we had one person doing the majority of the scoring (Strom-Okimoto’s 12 goals). And so now it’s nice to see that although you do miss a player who generates that kind of offensive power like a Raisa, we’ve got many other people who are stepping up to take control of the situation. So I’m thrilled to see that.”
Returnees: #13 Kiri Dale (R-Sr.); #14 Kayla Ryan (So.); #15 Izzy Deutsch (Jr.); #16 Morgan Meza (So.); #17 Mikaelah Johnson-Griggs (Sr.)
Gains: #3 Taylor Caporus (Fr.); #23 Michaela Rentner (So.); #24 Kylie McNamara (Fr.); #25 Emily Cottrell (Fr.); #33 Eliza Ammendiola (Fr.)
Losses: #5 Sarah Lau (4 years); #18 Leialoha Medeiros (2 years); #23 Jenna Williams (1 year)
Summary: The early loss of Medeiros (seven goals, four assists last season) as a dynamic attacking mid/forward in the offseason for personal reasons surely hurt, but Rentner, a transfer from Arizona known as “Big Mike”, is potentially a huge pickup at attacking mid. She scored once as a Wildcat true freshman. Meza has impressed with her mobility and ability to service a variety of balls and has locked down holding midfielder. Johnson-Griggs, known as “Mik,” has three career goals and brings poise at center mid. Dale remains the team’s ultimate plug-and-play utility player. Ryan, Deutsch, Caporus, Cottrell and McNamara open the season as bench support. Ammendiola, an Australian, was only recently cleared to practice with the team.
Michele Nagamine: “Luckily for us, (Rentner) transferred in the winter so she was able to participate in the spring season with us, which gave her a sense of familiarity with everybody else. She was immediately in the middle of everybody. She’s a genuinely likable person, an extremely hard person, and it was never like she was not here. So, it was nice to see that kind of transition. Sometimes when you have a transfer player, you don’t know how they’re going to fit in. But Big Mike has really embraced her role and the team, and has the potential to both assist and score goals.”
Returnees: #2 Cristina Drossos (Jr); #4 Natalie Dixon (So.); #7 Natalie Daub (So.); #8 Elena Palacios (So.); #12 Taylor Mason (Jr.); #19 Sadie Lutz (R-So.)
Gains: #5 V Jimenez (Fr.); #18 Grace Pekovich (Fr.); #28 Loren House (Fr.)
Summary: From left to right, Daub, Drossos, Palacios and Dixon have maintained their starting jobs in the back entering the second of a possible three years of lineup consistency. That group was very young in Year 1 together and made some unsurprising mistakes, but a plethora of time together has started to pay dividends. Lutz has looked good coming off of a season lost to an ACL injury and will be one of the first defenders brought on in relief. Mason is an energetic, capable outer back with starting experience. Freshmen Jimenez, Pekovich and House will fight for minutes as reserves.
Michele Nagamine: “I like the connection in our back line. With all of them hitting about the 1,000-minute mark last year, it represents a lot of confidence. They are connected to each other. They communicate very well. They’re familiar with each other’s style of play, so that’s a very good thing. The hard part about that is with three sophomores in the back line, you have expectations that were very high as freshmen. You got a bunch of minutes your freshman year. How do you have those repeat performances, and hold on to your positions moving forward? So each of them are very eager to please.”
Returnees: #1 Alexis Mata (R-Sr.); #11 Lauren Marquez (So.)
Losses: #24 Kailey Meyer (1 year)
Summary: It’s Mata’s year to shine coming of a Big West honorable mention season in which she posted six shutouts among UH’s nine wins, and a .811 save percentage, second in the conference. She enters her third season as the full starter and already ranks in the top 10 in most UH career keeper categories. Marquez, her understudy, has yet to play an official minute.
Michele Nagamine: “With Lex in the goal, she brings so many good things to the team. She’s getting better with her communication and organization. She is a fantastic shot stopper. She’s an extremely hard worker and she’s got tons of minutes under her belt. I think she feels she left some things on the table last year, and has some unfinished business to take care of. I’m really looking forward to seeing her grab that prize and kind of hang onto it, because she has worked extremely hard in her time here, and I feel like this last season for her can be a culmination of everything she’s worked hard for.”