Scrappy. Small. Quick.
Those adjectives have described the Hawaii soccer teams of coach Michele Nagamine through her first four years leading the program. UH has recruited heavily locally, which has lent to the overall small stature of the team, but even mainland players brought over in recent years haven’t towered over everyone else.
That’s about to change.
UH adds some legitimate size with its five-member 2015 signing class. Combined with another junior college transfer who is already in the Manoa system, the Rainbow Wahine will at the very least have some imposing size on the sidelines. If the added size is in play, they might win the ball on a few more set pieces.
Here’s the official class:
Leonicia “Nici” Lopez Fr. | 5-7 | F/MF | Sacramento, Calif. | Christian Brothers HS
Alexis Mata Fr. | 5-7 | GK | Woodland, Calif. | Pioneer HS
Malissa Shadle Fr. | 5-4 | F | San Ramon, Calif. | California HS
Sarah Lau Fr. | 5-10 | D | Honolulu | Kamehameha
Raisa Strom-Okimoto Fr. | 5-3 | F/MF | Aiea | Aiea
Also: Elise Wassner Jr. | 5-10 | D | College of the Canyons
To date, Nagamine hasn’t had an active player taller than 5 feet 8.
“We’re going to have two 5-10 players in the back line this year in Sarah Lau and Elise Wassner,” Nagamine said. “No. 1, I’m coachable, because people have always had, ‘When are you going to get some size on your team?’ We do what we have to do. The kids who we bring in who are smaller in stature, you cannot argue their productivity. The TJ Reynos, the Tiana Fujimotos, they’re little, but they may be compact, but they sure are worth their weight in gold. When I look at adding a little bit of the height factor there, it’s only going to help us have more of a presence. I’m really excited about that.”
Wassner committed during last season and enrolled at UH in the spring, so she technically isn’t part of this recruiting class. She has two seasons of eligibility.
Of the two local products Lau and Strom-Okimoto, Nagamine said, “I’m ecstatic that kids of that caliber have decided to stay home. Both of them (were) traveling extensively with their club teams to mainland tournaments.”
Both were 2014 all-state selections. Lau won the 2014 state title with Kamehameha. Sadly, Strom-Okimoto’s high school career with Aiea is already over due to injury.
Nagamine glowed about both.
“Sarah Lau has been a dual sport athlete since she was very young,” the coach said. “Probably could have gone someplace to play volleyball on a Division I scholarship. But you know, when you’re blessed athletically and you can choose what you want to do, that’s always a good thing, right? … She’s extremely athletic, she’s going to provide a lot of height for us in the back. She plays the 4-3-3 the way it’s supposed to be played. As an outside back, she gets forward, she’s very, very dangerous on set pieces. I’m just really, really excited about how we can just plug her in.”
Of Strom-Okimoto, Nagamine said: “She’s the industrious, loving, caring, kick-butt kind of player. She’s one of the best I’ve seen in the playmaking department. She’s so creative and she’s so dynamic, and just so smooth. And a kid that has grown up wanting to be part of the program, remembering who she saw playing before her and wanting to be like them. Joelle Sugai, because she’s an Aiea girl. It’s so nice to get a kid like that in the program, because everything she is embodies who we are. I’m really, really excited about Raisa.”
Nagamine was just as effusive about her three mainland freshmen, who all hail from Northern California — a bit of a departure from UH’s usual stomping grounds in SoCal.
“Nici Lopez being 5-7 and very aggressive … she’s one of those real tenacious kids that doesn’t take a lot of poop from anybody. She’s a serious competitor that steps on the field and wants to win every game. The way that I kind of got sold on Nici was, there was a minute left in the game, her team was up 1-0, the ball gets sent through, and it’s a long, lobbing air ball, and she just throws her body in there, hits the goalkeeper, hits the goalpost, knocks herself out. Scores the goal! But most people, with one minute left in the game, you wouldn’t chase that kind of ball down. You’d just kind of let it go, let it play out. And I was like, ‘Wow, this girl is tough as nails.’ That kind of determination and desire to do everything you can to protect the win for your team, I thought it spoke volumes about her as a player.”
Nagamine felt she addressed a need at center midfielder with the 5-4 Shadle.
“Melissa Shadle, we have a connection because her stepmother is one of my teammates and co-captain at Santa Clara. … Melissa is very composed, very competitive. She’s got great vision. Picking up her and Raisa in the midfield gives us a combination of playmakers that’s going to be really healthy for the team.”
UH added some depth at goalkeeper in Mata. She’ll begin behind UH’s two established goalkeepers, Monk Berger and Erica Young.
Alexis Mata … is a shot-stopper, really, really nice kid. Everybody really enjoyed her on the official visit. She just will add another dimension into the Monk/Erica mix. She’s a little bit different keeper than Monk/Erica in that she’s gonna be … because she’s coming in a freshman, she’s going to be a little more quiet. Pesky, too. We’ve seen her lead the team, she’s got some good techniques and some good habits we can build off of.
Nagamine added that Fujimoto, who redshirted the 2014 season while recovering from foot surgery, is running in cleats again.
“We love having her back.”