Emotions were still a bit raw for the Hawaii soccer team a few days removed from its season-ending home loss to Cal State Fullerton on Sunday.
As pick-me-ups go, Wednesday’s Big West Conference awards announcement did quite nicely.
Senior striker Raisa Strom-Okimoto became Hawaii’s first Big West offensive player of the year, and she was joined by sophomore Lei Medeiros on the All-BWC first team. Goalkeeper Lex Mata was a Big West honorable mention and center back Elena Palacios made the BWC All-Freshman team.
“I think I took it the hardest yesterday, it hit me yesterday what happened,” coach Michele Nagamine said of the 2-1 defeat to the last-place Titans. “But it’s nice to kind of end the year with this kind of honor and award for Raisa. I’m really happy for Lei and very happy for Lex. … It just helps to make the bittersweet end of the season a lot more bearable. I’m a milk chocolate person, not a bittersweet chocolate person.”
Strom-Okimoto, the Aiea alumna and UH co-captain, was rewarded after a blistering scoring season, becoming UH’s first three-time All-BWC performer. She was the conference’s leading scorer at 12 goals, and overall points leader at 27 factoring in her three assists. She carried UH (9-7-1, 4-4 Big West) to an overall winning season and to the brink of Big West tournament qualification, although the Rainbow Wahine fell just short of that breakthrough in fifth place.
“It was awesome. The first person who called me was Coach Bud, just kind of congratulating me for the award and stuff,” Strom-Okimoto said. “But to me it wasn’t really an individual award, it was more of a team award and I couldn’t have gotten that award without my team.”
For the progress UH made after being picked to finish last coming off last year’s 1-6-1 Big West campaign, Strom-Okimoto pointed to her team’s close-knit relationships on a small (in terms of numbers) roster that called upon nearly every healthy player to play a big role.
“That’s what set us up as a team. That’s what pushed us to be better than we were last year,” she said. “It just started from the beginning, things we needed to focus on as a team and kind of the individual awards and honors came with that.”
“RSO” wrapped up her career with 22 goals, sixth all-time for UH, and 13 assists, which tied for eighth. The only other players in UH history to be a conference’s singular player of the year or position player of the year are Natasha Kai (2002, 2003, 2005); Ambree Ako (offensive, 2007); Tehane Higa (defensive, 2007); Taryn Fukuroku (offensive, 2008); and Nicole Mikula (defensive, 2008). Those players all did it in the WAC.
“She was constantly working from start to finish. I think people really respected that about her,” Nagamine said. “When anything got hard, she just worked harder.”
Medeiros, a Kamehameha-Maui graduate, was one of two sophomores on the first team after scoring seven goals and posting a team-high four assists. There was marked improvement from her BWC All-Freshman season, when she scored a single goal as a part-time starter.
“I was overwhelmed with happiness,” the Wailuku native said. “The first people I called were my parents and my grandparents. They were very excited also. … Every single one of the girls on this team deserves to be recognized, because we all put in that work, the blood, sweat and tears. I think it showed this season. I’m just happy that a few of us got recognition from Hawaii, because it shows that there’s talent everywhere, not just in the huge states.”
Medeiros will likely be a centerpiece of the Wahine offense next season.
“I think with her technical ability and the way Lei reads the game, she could also be one of our best to put on a UH jersey,” Nagamine said. “I told Lei, ‘you need to look at what Raisa’s done, because that’s the amount of work and suffering that’s going to need to occur for you to get to that next level.’ ”
Said Medeiros, “I really do look up to Raisa because she’s a perfect role model of what it’s like to overcome adversity. Her injuries from her senior year in high school, her freshman year here in college, I think that every single one of us should look up to Raisa and keep her as an example of what to do in times where nothing’s going your way.”
It marked the second time in three years UH placed two players on the first team; Strom-Okimoto and Addie Steiner did it in 2016. CORRECTION: It’s actually the third straight year. UH had Strom-Okimoto and Sonest Furtado on the first team in 2017 as well.
Mata’s honorable mention amounted to top-three status among keepers in the conference; the redshirt junior was second in saves (86) and save percentage (.811) after playing every minute in goal in 2018. She had six shutouts.
“I think for Lex to be on the top three of goalkeepers in the conference is huge,” Nagamine said, pointing to several other keepers around the league who had strong seasons.
Palacios was named to the 11-player freshman team. She played all but 17 minutes of a possible 1,592 on the season.
“Phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal,” Nagamine said. “She led us in such a calm manner. She was one of our most consistent players. She didn’t get rattled very easily. I thought she showed maturity beyond her years.”
No UH players made the senior-dominated BWC second team.
Regular-season champ Long Beach State took coach of the year (Mauricio Ingrassia), midfielder of the year (Dana Fujikuni), and defender of the year (Sarah Maher). UC Irvine’s Maddie Newsom was goalkeeper of the year.
— Big West W-Soccer (@BigWestWSOC) October 31, 2018