By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Christian Liberty has skill up top, strength in the middle, size in the back and experience all around.
Even with all that, boys soccer coach Troy Rimel points to two intangibles as the keys to the Canefire making this a special season.
“Unity and belief in one another are probably the most important things to our success,” Rimel said. “They’ve got to trust each other, they’ve got to believe in each other.”
If the Canefire needed a reminder about the importance of those traits, they got a heavy dose of them during a preseason trip as the team gathered to watch “Miracle,” a movie that chronicles Team USA’s hockey victory against the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
The monumental upset came long before any of Christian Liberty’s players were born, and the ice is far different from the pitch, but a few points hit home.
“We knew about the game and that the Russians were all intense, but we hadn’t heard that much about it,” senior sweeper Tim Jittu said. “We talked about how it was good that (the U.S.) didn’t mind that people didn’t think they could beat the Russians, but they still came through.”
Not that the Keaau school usually needs anything miraculous to happen to compete with the big boys. And when you’re the size of Christian Liberty, almost every school you face — save for maybe Makua Lani — is bigger. The Canefire make up for it, in part, by being soccer-crazy. Boys in the high school who aren’t involved with the soccer team are in the minority. Rimel estimates that two-thirds of the 40-something males in grades 9-12 are involved with the team in some capacity.
“There will always be the top teams and bigger public schools,” Jittu said. “For a smaller school, we hold our own. We should be all right.”
That was again the case last season.
The Canefire started as a group that was somewhat divided along underclassmen/upperclassmen lines, but they eventually worked things out, reaching the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II finals for the second time and losing to powerhouse Honokaa. Christian Liberty won a game at the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament and reached its season-long goal by playing for the first time at the main stadium at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex in the third-place match on Oahu.
“We had only seen it with binoculars before,” Rimel said.
The Canefire fell to Kapaa 1-0 in the state semifinals but rebounded to finish a program-best third.
“We learned we need to finish harder,” Jittu said of the loss to the Warriors. “We were playing but we didn’t have as much intensity as we should have. So this year, we’ll come out with more intensity.
“We’re a little ahead of where we were last year at this point. We’ll be more connected. I think we’re going to be a well-bonded team.”
Not surprisingly, the Canefire are eyeing at least one more win this time around, rallying around the theme “Two at 5” — as in playing in a pair of 5 p.m. matches in the postseason: the league and state finals.
“That’s what we’re striving for,” Jittu said.
Eight starters are back in what will be Rimel’s most veteran team. All 11 players who are set to start Saturday in the opener at home against Parker will have played in either a BIIF final or at states.
“The middle of the field is incredibly strong,” Rimel said. “We’re going to try and move the ball fast, and attack quickly and they’re going to be very exciting to watch.
“We like using the outside. Keep it out of the middle as much as possible and attack on the wings, and try to keep it wide.”
While Jittu leads the backline, the offense is in the capable hands of quick-footed junior forward Nakaya Kerr, who’s added some muscle to his frame after scoring 15 goals last season.
Already adept at using either foot, Rimel feels he’s now better equipped to “body and muscle in the middle and hold his position and get his one step.”
If Kerr doesn’t lead the team in scoring again, perhaps it will be Louis Moylan. The left-footed junior has garnered a team-high 21 assists the past two seasons, and he’s worked all summer to use his right foot and improve his physical play.
The only underclassmen in the starting lineup is sophomore Seqouya Kerr, who will play an offensive center midfield as he takes advantage of what Rimel called “great vision and ability to distribute.”
Midfielder Kekoa Mundo, a 6-foot-4 junior, will focus more on defense in the center in front of Jittu, who brings height as well, and imposing senior stopper Keenan Freitas, who’s known as the “Bulldozer.”
Senior Zach Wolf, who scored the game-winner against Mid-Pacific in the third-place match at states last season, and junior Zech DeCleene are the outside mids, and two seniors, Caeden Cambra and Ben Wada, are the bookends at fullback.
Keanu Bergfeld, 6-5, likely will take over the reins at goalkeeper, allowing junior backup Kiyoshi Kaili‘i to provide depth at midfield.
The pieces seem in place; now Christian Liberty has to see if everything fits.
“They’re chomping at the bit,” Rimel said. “They have a belief that they can do it again, but they understand that it’s hard to get back. We’re not trying to hold on to something. We’re trying to get something.
Christian Liberty tested itself against two of its fellow D-II contenders in the preseason, playing three-time BIIF champion Honokaa and Hawaii Prep to draws.
“I don’t think people realize how competitive D-II is,” Rimel said. “It is wide-open. It’s all going to be on who comes to play and what teams have the little extra edge to be able to push through.”