Konawaena proved last year that it wasn’t just that “other” soccer program in West Hawaii.
This season, the Wildcats can show that they’re the best. Instead of simply defending its Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II title — the first for boys soccer in 32 seasons — Konawaena is moving up to Division I.
“We thought the boys were ready for another challenge,” said Phil Fukushima, an assistant to head coach Keahi Fleming. “It gives them some motivation to work hard and give it a shot. They are excited to compete.”
Kealakehe has long been the dominant boys program on the island, winning five of the past seven BIIF titles. And while Fukushima believes there’s no reason that the Waveriders’ shadow should cast all the way down Kealakekua, he said the switch was only natural, pointing out that the eastside has three Division I teams.
“We want to make sure that kids in West Hawaii have options to play Division I,” Fukushima said.
And as a byproduct, the Kealakehe-Konawaena rivalry just got a little more intense. The teams are scheduled to finish the regular season against each other with a match Jan. 30, and Konawaena senior Coran Yamamoto said he already had the date marked.
“We back our coaches’ decision,” he said. “Just to get a little more exposure, a little more competition.”
The move adds a dose of intrigue to the Division I regular season beyond just Waveriders-Wildcats. Previously, all four teams — Hilo, Waiakea and Keaau are the others — had automatic berths into the league semifinals.
With 11 seniors back, the Wildcats look like a good bet to get there. As Fleming and Fukushima have revived the program over the past four years, the roster size has steadily risen. Fukushima said 33 players came out for soccer, and the coaches kept 22. Many of them gained seasoning in the Konawaena’s summer program.
“A lot more speed this year, a lot more talent,” Yamamoto said.
Most spots in the lineup are still an open competition, Fukushima said, as Konawaena builds around its pillars: John Replogle on offense and Yamamoto on defense. Replogle was voted the BIIF Division II Player of the Year last season after scoring 20 goals, while Yamamoto will likely concentrate on fullback this year after playing goalkeeper for the Wildcats during a BIIF playoff run that included just four goals for and one goal allowed in three games.
“He’s a fantastic keeper and he’s a fantastic field player, so we have the luxury of having to choose where to use him,” Fukushima said.
Junior Michael Gusman will see time at goalkeeper, and Angel Valdovinos is the team’s third senior co-captain.
For a team that always thought defense first, last season came to a fitting ending. Konawaena fought Kalaheo to a 0-0 draw in the third-place game at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament. Far and way his team’s best scoring option, Replogle even volunteered to move to midfield at times last season to mark opposing offensive threats.
While the Wildcats’ philosophy hasn’t changed, Fukushima expects them to become more balanced.
“We pride ourselves on playing good solid defense, and we believe you build from the back,” he said. “We’re more talented, mostly because all of our players are a year older and have a year more experience. We seem to be a lot more confident on the ball, and more confident in each other. That will lead to more offense.”