By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Help is here for senior Kera Akiyama and the Kamehameha girls soccer team.
The Warriors finally got back to the Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II title game last year, but they ran into a juggernaut. Hawaii Preparatory Academy shut down the Warriors 2-0 to win its third consecutive title.
If the Warriors got schooled, then at least Akiyama was taking notes.
“I think the BIIF championship game was a wake-up call for us, and if we played a little harder than we could have done some good things,” she said. “I think from that game we learned a lot. That’s the level we should be playing at.”
Fortunately for the Warriors, the cavalry appears to have arrived this season in the form of a large, talented freshmen class.
Kamehameha’s varsity roster at the Big Island Candies Hilo Bay Classic listed 11 freshmen, and more than a few observers at the preseason tournament last weekend took note of the immediate impact the group was making.
Third-year coach Sonya Ah Chong is still sorting out which freshmen are going to play and where, so she prefers to speak of the group only as a unit for now.
“I have a big freshman class. I have a big, big contingency of soccer players,” she said. “All of them excite me. They all have the drive and motivation and want to play.”
And the class — a product of the Warriors’ focus on raising interest in soccer at the intermediate level — already has made its presence felt at practice.
“What it’s doing is creating that competition on the team,” Ah Chong said. “And so everybody is having to step up, and playing to compete for their positions. It’s pushed the upperclassmen to work harder.”
Added Akiyama: “They’re big, too. They give our team size and aggressiveness.”
While the freshmen will play, the returning cast is solid in its own right. Eight returning starters are back, including four-year starters Akiyama and Lehua McGuire, as well as juniors Harper Hottendorf, Anuhea Leite-AhYo and Tiana Iwata, from a team that finished sixth in the state at 11-5-1.
The speedy Akiyama is a threat to score whether she plays up top or in the midfield, leading the team with 17 goals last season.
“What I like about her is her pace on the ball,” Ah Chong said. “She plays at a fast pace, and she’s working to maintain possession of the ball. She’s a goal-to-goal kind of player.”
The Warriors must replace forward Sharayah Ah Chong and her 11 goals, but the ever-improving Hottendorf is a prime candidate to do so as she moves up top after playing defense last year.
Hottendorf scored a hat trick against Roosevelt at the Hilo Bay Classic, and Sonya Ah Chong lauded her motivation and hard-working attitude.
Of course, the same could be said for Leite-AhYo, who will move to fullback and be counted on as a two-way player, and Iwata, who will resume her role as playmaker in the midfield.
Iwata, Akiyama, and senior Tiffany Pacheco all earned second-team all-BIIF honors last season, while Hottendorf and junior Mikela Cabel were honorable mention. McGuire was a first-teamer at goalkeeper. She held strong last year as Kamehameha played scoreless draws against Hilo and Waiakea and twice beat Honokaa 1-0, including in the BIIF semifinals.
“The options are great. I still have a lot of figuring out to do,” Ah Chong said.
The Warriors continue their preseason this weekend at the Wahine Wildcat Preseason Soccer Tournament in Kealakekua, and Ah Chong was looking forward to going up against a strong field that includes defending Division II state champion Mid-Pacific as well as some Division I teams.
“We’ll probably get our butts kicked, but we’ll see where we’re at,” she said.
Akiyama knows exactly where she’s at.
She’s been to states three times and to one BIIF title game, but the senior is ready to end with a bang. She’s eyeing a league scoring title and an elusive BIIF championship.
The Warriors haven’t won BIIFs since 2009, and loaded Hawaii Prep, which hosts Kamehameha in the teams’ opener Dec. 1, again stands in the way this season.
“I think it’s a realistic goal,” she said. “We lost really good players last year, but the freshmen are filling in. We have to be able to improve our speed of play. It shouldn’t make a difference that we have a lot of younger player starting, because they have a lot of potential.”