By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
The Konawaena boys soccer team will look much like it did last season.
The faces will mostly be the same, at least.
Keahi Fleming has 10 returning starters heading into today’s season opener in Kealakekua against Kohala, but the second-year coach thinks there will be a noticeable difference in these Wildcats.
The expectation is that Kona will be a year older and therefore play with a maturity level that directly translates to improved results on the field.
“Same team, but realizing they bought into our system, our style of play,” Fleming said. “Passing on the ground, less dribbling. More of team effort and less selfish play.
“Very cohesive, a lot better than last year. With a first-year coach, they want to test you and see what they can get away with. We run a little stricter program (this year), more teamwork.”
Konawaena finished 6-6-2 in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation last season, failing to get out of the Division II quarterfinals after reaching the Hawaii High School Athletic Association tournament the season before. And D-II figures to be as competitive as ever this year.
“We can build on everything,” senior Justin Uchimura said. “We can always get better and we will get better. We’re hoping to do a lot better going against (D-II).
“Coach knows all the players from last season. He knows what everyone can do and their strengths and weaknesses and can build on that.”
Fleming cited finishing as one of Kona’s weaknesses last year, though that wasn’t a problem for junior John Replogle, who placed near the top of the BIIF with 19 goals.
While Replogle leads the offense, Uchimura, one of four co-captains, spearheads the defense at center fullback.
“I just have a great feeling with defending our goal and keeping the score down,” said Uchimura, who’s been playing soccer since he was 5.
Like many BIIF teams, Kona will try and play more ball-control. And like a lot of its competition in D-II, depth could be an issue.
Senior Gabriel Magana will be a lynch pin up top, while senior Ivan Rodriguez and junior Coran Yamamoto are among the key pieces at midfield.
Goalkeeper Michael Gusman received seasoning in net as a freshman last season.
The highlight of Kona’s preseason came during a 1-0 victory against Division I Hilo at the Big Island Candies Classic.
“Probably the best most of us have played,” Uchimura said. “We had the mentality that we just wanted to keep up, and we did more.”
The following weekend, however, the Wildcats lost their first two matches at the Ka Makani Classic and finished in a tie for seventh.
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish,” Fleming said.
Asked to signal out a team strength, he and assistant coach Phil Fukushima declined to give away any secrets.
They’ll let the Wildcats play speak for itself.
“We hope to be in the mix,” Fukushima said.