By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Pedro Sanches provided the go-ahead goal, making life a little easier for Honokaa’s run toward a fourth straight Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II soccer championship.
Relying on big-game experience, a bend-but-don’t-break defense, and sharp ball skills, the Dragons defeated Christian Liberty 3-2 on Friday at Hilo Bayfront to clinch a bye and spot in the BIIF semifinals.
In the BIIF quarterfinals, the higher-seeded Canefire (9-3-1) will visit Kamehameha (4-6-3) at 6 p.m. Tuesday, and Konawaena (8-3-2) will host Makua Lani (7-4-2) at 6 p.m..
In the BIIF semifinals, Hawaii Prep (12-1) will host the Kona-Makua Lani winner at 3 p.m. Thursday, and Honokaa (10-2-1) will host the CLA-Kamehameha winner.
Sequoya Kerr was a force for the Canefire, setting up one goal and scoring another. But Honokaa answered each time, dribbling through the teeth of the defense and punching in scores.
“We only return three starters (forwards Justin Warren and Clayton Robinson and midfielder Tony Connors), but we’ve been here before,” Honokaa coach Maurice Miranda said. “I’m proud of the guys. They came from behind, fought momentum and found a way to do it.”
The Dragons scored one minute into the game when Kekoa Phenecie stole the ball from a defender on the left wing, weaved his way to the middle and slotted a pass to Warren, who knocked it in.
The Canefire, who lost to Honokaa for the BIIF title in 2010 and last season, relied on Kerr to make something happen.
About six minutes before halftime, the rangy sophomore broke down the defense with his dribble, and placed a ball right at Zach Wolf’s feet near the mouth of the goal. Wolf finished for the 1-1 tie.
Early in the second half, Kerr’s height proved valuable when he scored on a header, but the lead didn’t last long. There was over 30 minutes left and Honokaa’s passing attack was starting to click.
Six minutes later, the ball was worked up to Warren at the top of the box. From there, he dribbled to get inside position and fired from 18 yards out for a 2-2 tie and his 19th goal.
“Justin and Clayton are our most skilled and creative ball-handlers,” Miranda said. “We give them the green light to go at people. The read is if there’s one guy to go at him, force him to make a tackle or foul. If the defender overcommits, there’s a space behind that’s open.”
That’s basically soccer Playmaking 101. It’s dribble to draw the defense, and send off a pass. It works like a charm when timing, ball-handling and finishing are on the same page.
At the 77-minute mark, Robinson took the ball on the wing, dribbled in and found Sanches home alone near the right post. Sanches had a perfect first touch, one-timing a rocket for a 3-2 lead.
“We settled down in the second half. We were holding on to the ball too long in the first half. In the second half, we were playing more ball to feet,” Sanches said. “Clayton dribbled down the left side, saw an opening when I cut inside of the defender and I hit it.”
Then the Dragons played shutdown defense for the last three minutes. Honokaa goalie Cassidy Dixon got credited with the win. Meanwhile, the Canefire will have to get past Kamehameha to earn a rematch against Honokaa; they beat the Warriors 5-0 earlier.
“I thought the difference was finishing,” Christian Liberty coach Troy Rimel said. “They were in the right place at the right time. We didn’t have much crosses, and they dribbled in on their crosses. When they dribbled right from the outside to the middle, three lanes opened up.
“It was well-fought, physical and fun. It was a good opportunity for us going into the playoffs.”
The Dragons shuffled around their lineup to boost their offense, moving Robinson from midfield to forward to team with Warren, and Connors from sweeper to midfield. Aukana’i Kapu went from fullback to sweeper.
Miranda believes the Dragons have found their footing with their new look.
“We did that lineup change three games ago,” Miranda said. “Tony gives us at midfield what he gave us at sweeper. He wins more balls and gets us started. We just have to tighten up our defense. Our midfield has been our biggest ongoing project. We’re just trying to possess and transition more. We’re going to have to outscore people to win games.”