By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Yonha Adrabi not only had his hands all over the culture change that revived the University of Hawaii at Hilo men’s soccer program last season, but he also had a unique point of view.
The senior goalkeeper witnessed the Vulcans’ unsure start under first-year coach Ziggy Korytoski. But what followed was a steady build of momentum that paved the way for a sterling finish.
“We matured from the first game to the last game once we finally bought into Ziggy’s system,” Adrabi said. “Once we did, we started to get results.”
Well, now UHH gets to do it all over again.
Enter director of soccer Lance Thompson, who favors a more direct and aggressive style of play than his predecessor.
Thompson, who left the Cal State San Bernardino men’s program to become UHH’s first soccer czar, met his players in mid-August. He said it was easy to see he’d inherited a team that went unbeaten in six of its last seven matches in 2012.
“I can tell that momentum has carried over,” he said. “Their enthusiasm and the rate that they’re training at has really been impressive.
“I think that carry-over has given them some faith and a belief in themselves. I picked up on that early in the preseason.”
Before arriving in Hilo, Thompson was encouraged when Korytoski told him that UHH had a roster full of players who were a perfect match for the go-to-goal system he’s implementing. Thompson’s theory is that the substitution-friendly college game favors a high-paced style, since you can give your players breathers.
The problem, he says, is that many UHH players are used to watching professional games, where substitutions are limited and more emphasis is put on passing.
“It’s increased the level of intensity and aggression in practice,” he said. “There is a learning curve. The question is how quickly they are willing to adapt and accept the new tactics.”
He figures to find out a few answers today when UHH opens its season. And as fate would have it, the opponent is Thompson’s former team, Cal State San Bernardino.
“It’s not that weird,” he said, “It’s happened before.”
He’s also not fazed by having to lead both the men’s and women’s teams. After coaching the Lady Vulcans to a 2-1 victory against the Coyotes on Thursday on Oahu alongside assistant Victor Benavides, he’s eagerly awaiting assistant Gene Okamura to arrive today with the men’s team.
With its strong finish, UHH turned in a 5-8-2 record in 2012. The Vulcans were picked to place ninth out of 13 teams in the preseason Pacific West Conference poll.
One of the challenges of the preseason was whittling down the travel roster to 18.
“We’re pretty deep,” Thompson said.
And he’s got a team backbone at goalkeeper.
Before practice started, one of Thompson’s friends who had unsuccessfully tried to recruit Adrabi told him to get excited about his future goalkeeper.
“He was right,” Thompson said.
The 6-foot-2 Adrabi not only helped set the pace for UHH’s turnaround last year with his play in goal, but he acted as another coach on the field, vocally directing traffic as plays developed in front of him.
And when Yonha talks, players listen.
“You’re probably going to hear me more this year than last year,” Adrabi said. “That’s part of being a goalkeeper, it’s not just about making saves.
“If you can communicate and break up plays before they happen, that makes my job a lot easier. They hear me, they know it’s nothing personal if I get on their case. If I chew them out, they understand it’s part of the game and what’s best for the team.”
This year his personal goals include eight shutouts — that’s the exact number of clean sheets that Thompson’s Coyotes turned in last season — as well as lowering his goal against average from 2.05 in 2012.
Among the returnees who will help him on those pursuits is junior fullback Ryhen Eugenio (10 starts last season) as well as senior Morgan Popp (seven).
Thompson is excited about a pair of junior transfers from Jacksonville (Fla.) University, Scott Hill and Justin Szymkowiak. Hill took advantage of his 6-2 frame at center fullback last season.
“Wow, he’s talented and super athletic,” Thompson said. “He’s very skilled and can play anywhere.”
Last year’s leading scorer, Kealakehe graduate Rayden Bala, left to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Hawaii, so the Vulcans have to replace his six goals as well as two of their other top point producers.
Senior Xavier Fuerte is back after scoring five goals last season, and he’ll be looked upon for leadership. A pair of Waiakea graduates, senior Ian Watanabe and sophomore James Yamane will be counted on to pick up some of the scoring slack, and senior Philp Sakaba’s hard work has stood out to his coach in the preseason.
“He’s been really impressive with his work rate, and that saying a lot because this whole team has been working hard,” Thompson said. “For me to single him out, he’s gone the extra mile.”
Freshman Anthony Novella has earned playing time, and Thompson looks forward to what 2013 Hilo High graduate Justin Shiigi can bring at midfield.
“Love him. He’s strong and works at a high rate,” Thompson said. “Skillful and still adapting to learning.”