One word going around the preseason campfire among Big Island Interscholastic Federation soccer coaches was how improved the Hawaii Prep boys looked in what is shaping up as a very competitive Division II race.
Ka Makani coach Rich Braithwaite agrees, and he’ll even go one step further. The 31-year-old, who’s played semipro soccer in Europe and on the mainland, is energetic when he takes the field with his Ka Makani during practices and runs with them after matches. He’s equally enthusiastic about what his new-look team can accomplish this season.
“D-II looks great, and I think we have the bodies to win it,” Braithwaite said.
HPA’s losses are heavy — with only three returning starters from a team that finished fourth in the BIIF and failed to reach the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament. But the gains could be even better.
“We got very lucky,” the second-year coach said. “The thing about working at a boarding school is it’s a revolving door.”
Last season’s leading scorer, exchange student Martynas Golubovskis, moved out after his junior year.
The reinforcements have streamed in, with four transfers and a host of freshmen primed to make an immediate impact alongside a returning cast that includes team leader Jack Austin and Kepa Police, one of the toughest forwards to mark in the BIIF.
And everyone is meshing well, according to Austin, a junior.
“It’s great. We’ve gotten really tight. It’s like a brotherhood,” he said. “A lot of the new guys are dedicated to the game.”
Senior Keisuke Ohtaka is new to the high school but not HPA. He attended the middle school and returns after spending three years in California. Braithwaite feels Ohtaka has the potential to be HPA’s best performer as he teams with Austin to give Ka Makani strength in the middle, players that are equally adept at attacking or defending.
“I think we have the two best center midfielders on the island,” Braithwaite said.
Police, a senior who scored 12 goals last season, will work with freshman Justin Perry, and the chemistry up top appears to be greatly improved compared to last season.
“Justin is a freshman, but he understands the game alongside Kepa in a way Martynas never did,” the coach said.
Ka Makani were an athletic bunch last season, but they often failed to click, finishing 9-7. And for as many times as Golubovskis (team-leading 19 goals) and Police found the back of the net, they rarely worked as a tandem. Not once did they assist each other for a score.
“It was hard last year; sometimes we didn’t communicate,” Austin said. “Up top, it was hard for me to connect with Martynas. The thing is, me and Kepa have been playing together since we were 3. I know what he’s doing. He knows what I’m doing.”
HPA has four new fullbacks, but Braithwaite feels as if he essentially has four center midfielders playing on a versatile backline that could conceivably reconfigure and have free reign to join the offensive attack in some instances.
A pair of transfers will anchor the unit, with Max Gent, a sophomore exchange student from Germany, at stopper and junior Blake Hooser at sweeper. Another transfer, junior KB Barthson, and freshman Dylan Ryan will play on the outside.
“We are sound defensively in a way we never were last year,” Braithwaite said. “Our back four is much more organized.”
Two freshmen goalkeepers, Kyle Hollister and Trenton Wise, have impressed during preseason camp, making their coach comfortable with either one starting when HPA opens the season Saturday at home against Kamehameha-Hawaii.
One key for the Ka Makani will be developing some depth and avoiding injuries in what should be a grind of a season in Division II.
Honokaa, winner of the past two state titles, has some holes to fill, but it still should be formidable as it goes for its fourth straight BIIF crown. League runner-up Christian Liberty, which beat HPA in the BIIF semifinals last season, is coming off its highest finish at states (third). Makua Lani was the team that ultimately denied HPA a state spot last season, and the Warriors should be in the mix as well. Konawaena, with 10 returnees, could be a surprise team.
“This year is big for us,” Austin said. “We’ll go game by game, but we can win BIIFs. We just have to remain dedicated. Every day we have to show up, work hard and play.”