By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Don’t expect too much fanfare today before the Honokaa Dragons open their season at home against Ka‘u.
With their banners already hanging neatly at the school gym, those who are left from the soccer teams that conquered the Division II boys state championships the past two years intend to get right to work.
Last year, the Dragons’ juggernaut set out on a quest to win every game, and it did just that. This season, Honokaa will start a little simpler and try to make incremental improvements along the way.
“We have to rebuild our skill, definitely,” senior Clayton Robinson said. “You usually win if you have a lot of talent or good team chemistry. We have the chemistry all right, and we have the whole season to build the skill.
“We’re definitely going to get better. There’s a lot of chemistry. There’s no real stars, because all of them left.”
The core nucleus of Robert Connors, Chayce Moniz and Dylan Shiraki delivered skill as well as every intangible imaginable, helping to deliver consecutive Big Island Interscholastic Federation titles and Hawaii High School Athletic Association crowns.
They’ve all graduated, and though the Dragons must replace five other starters, coach Maurice Miranda said, “Nothing’s changed.”
He’s not making any predictions, but he’s ready for the next group of leaders to emerge.
“There’s a lot of fight in us,” junior Tony Connors said. “Pressure doesn’t even enter” the equation.
With returnees in tow such as Robinson, Connors and senior Justin Warren, Miranda’s expectation level for his program remains the same.
“We’re trying to win championships,” he said. “We may be starting from a little further back than we have in the past couple of years. I expect us to be in the mix.
“One of the things we have going for us is we’ve got kids from those teams who are back. Those are the guys we’re expecting to provide leadership.
“We have some guys who are stepping up, but there’s no substitute for skill.”
For Miranda, winning at Honokaa has always been contagious as one group paves the way for the next.
The Dragons surprised Kamehameha to win their first BIIF title in 2008, and the veteran coach says that triumph instilled his program with the belief system it needed to accomplish the feat again in 2010, its first of three straight.
A Sage Johnson-led squad advanced to the state title game that year before losing, but Honokaa only came back stronger the past two years.
Now its time for Tony Connors, Warren and Robinson to take the spotlight.
“We have to get our skill people in the position where they can score goals,” Miranda said. “They have been playing so well for us.”
Warren is Honokaa’s most reliable forward, and Robinson, who was just cleared to return from injury after scoring seven goals last season, will play midfield, as will improving junior Seanry Agbayani.
Honokaa teams of the past put on clinics with their intricate passing schemes. Miranda still wants to play that style, but he expects some growing pains.
“We want to be that ball-possession team,” he said. “Don’t know if we can. Might be uglier this year.”
Connors could be a stabilizing factor. He’s a force on defense, but Miranda is hoping that junior Gavin Laird will be able to fill that role to allow Connors to move up.
“I think he’s chomping at the bit to get into a more creative role,” Miranda said, “but he’s so solid on defense and he has the mindset to be that guy.”
Junior Aukana‘i Kapu is taking on an expanded role on defense, and senior Pedro Sanches could make an impact either on the backline or up top.
Unlike last season, a group of freshmen (Chance Salva, Ethan McArdle, Kyle Ohta and Zechariah Ugalde), some of whom have precious little organizational soccer experience, will be counted on to step up and fill voids immediately.
There are a lot of holes to fill, but goalkeeper shouldn’t be one of them.
Cassidy Dixon, who attends Laupahoehoe Charter School and is a transfer from Hawaii Academy of Arts & Sciences, takes over for Maikai Coelho.
Dixon’s already carried Honokaa in preseason matches, and Miranda says the move is beneficial for both parties.
“Cassidy wants to play in college,” he said. “For his development, it’s probably a good idea for him to get to a program that will make a run. We plan to make a run.”
Just how far remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure: a new era starts today at Honokaa.
Asked if this season had the potential to be more enjoyable because the pressure to win has decreased, Warren just shrugged.
“Well, I think it’s always fun,” he said. “I think we definitely have potential. It’s definitely going to be a lot of work, it’s always work. But I think we’ll be able to get through and push hard.”