By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
As usual, Kealakehe started its year by hitting the beach. However, boys soccer coach Urs Leuenberger always makes sure there’s not much time for frolicking.
For the first four weeks of training camp each year, the Waveriders pound away in the sand to work their leg muscles.
“It’s tough. It’s super tough, but it helps a lot,” senior Avery Hardie-Jordan said. “When you’re running in sand it gets your legs a lot stronger for the season.”
Injury prevention is the goal, and soccer balls aren’t allowed.
“That last week, when we know we’re going to be done, we get stoked,” Hardie-Jordan said. “We just want to get on the field already.”
And with that, Kealakehe is raring and ready to go. One of the hardest parts of its season may already be over.
The Waveriders returned to the top of the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I throne last season after a one-year absence, and even with three accomplished players to replace, Leuenberger already likes the intangibles he’s seen from this year’s team.
“It’s a way more cohesive group, way more disciplined,” he said. “Because of that, it’s way more fun to coach them. I would estimate way fewer roadblocks on the way to defend the title.
“It won’t be easy. Hilo is very strong, but it will be interesting to do. I have high hopes.”
Leuenberger is particularly bullish about his wealth of talent up top, so much so that Kealakehe will at times move from a 4-4-2 defensive system to more of a 4-3-3 look to take advantage of its abundance of forwards and strong midfielders.
After being more of a distributor at midfield last season, Hardie-Jordan will move up top with senior Kapono Berard when three forwards are on the field, and the duo should again be among Kealakehe’s primary goal producers as it looks to replace leading scorer Cory Fischer (14 goals) and BIIF player of the year Tyler Yates.
“I like it. I get to be up top and get the ball fed to me instead of feeding the ball to people,” Hardie-Jordan said. “Our finishing, Kapono and me, all preseason our finishing has been a lot better.
“Everything is a lot better than it was last year.”
Junior Keoni Yates (13 goals) is the leading returning scorer, while Hardie-Jordan and Berard netted seven and six, respectively.
There’s strength at defense as well, with Jason Kuwada and Connor Keale.
With four starters leaving, Leuenberger expects upperclassmen Evan Alterman, Daniel Caudell, Scott Henderson, Nathan Libadisos and sophomore Tyler Deverse to step up and fill the void.
Yates will play either forward or midfield, Caudell, a junior, is vying to start at forward and Brazilian exchange student Ariel Lima, a junior, is also in the mix up top.
Sophomore Marc Takahashi and senior Logan Whitney will start again at midfield, while Alterman, a junior, will be looked upon to bolter the unit.
Leuenberger is high on his freshmen, and the development of Greyson Moore will be key as he tries to take over at goalkeeper after standout Kawela Benson graduated. If Moore can lock down the job in net, that will allow Keale, a senior, to be bring more value to the field at fullback playing alongside Kuwada, a senior and an all-BIIF first-team selection last season.
Two other freshmen, Ari Mench and Tristan Aderino, will also see immediate playing time.
“The freshmen are a lot better then we thought they were going to be,” Hardie-Jordan said. “(Greyson) will be stepping up. We feel comfortable with him there.”
Motivated to get back the BIIF title after missing out at states altogether in 2011 as the three-time champion, Kealakehe beat Waiakea in the league final and finished 13-3-1 last season — two losses came at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament and the other defeat was to state Division II champion Honokaa.
As an added bonus this year, BIIF regular-season champions will receive automatic state berths. The Vikings figure to be Kealakehe’s primary threat, with Waiakea and Keaau undergoing rebuilding seasons.
This is the last hurrah for a group of seniors including Hardie-Jordan, Berard, Kuwada, Keale and Whitney that’s been playing together since their time in the American Youth Soccer Association.
“We know we can’t take any team lightly,” Hardie-Jordan said. “We have a target on our back. We know we have to step it up. Embrace that target.”