By JOE FERRARO
KEALAKEKUA — Before the season started, Jessica Benioni saw a bottomless talent pool.
It was so large, the Hawaii Prep senior said, that the Ka Makani’s coaching staff had a difficult time deciding on starters for each girls soccer match.
But that deep talent pool made competition for starting positions fierce, which raised the level of play on the entire team, which led to what Benioni expected since the start of the season: a fourth consecutive Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division II title.
Benioni scored a go-ahead goal on a 20-yard blast in the 54th minute, and freshman Marlie Mandaguit added an insurance goal in the 62nd as HPA beat Kamehameha 3-1 in the Division II final Saturday at Konawaena.
“We had a lot of upcoming freshman that had a lot of talent, and we even have a hard time putting in the (starting) 11 because we have so much talent we can use on the field,’’ said Benioni, one of seven Hawaii Prep players who has scored five goals or more this season. “Which is good because we know when we can put someone else in, we can trust them on the field.
“We all have to work hard to prove we can be on the field.”
HPA (10-1-2) took control of its match against Kamehameha (9-4) in the second half after the teams entered intermission in a 1-1 tie.
The Ka Makani outshot the Warriors 10-1 in the second half and 16-3 in the match. HPA coach Steve Perry said the possession skills of senior midfielder Emily Evans and sophomore midfielder Gabbie Ewing allowed the Ka Makani to get into an offensive flow, calling the two “rock-solid” in the middle.
HPA’s effort earned the team a bye in the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II tournament, which begins Wednesday and runs through Feb. 2 at Oahu’s Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex. Kamehameha, Honokaa (6-5-1) and Makua Lani (4-8) will also participate in the state tournament.
HPA scored its decisive goal when senior defender Jasmine Fojas sent a Kamehameha clearing attempt back toward the Warriors’ goal.
Fojas’ pass found its way to Benioni, who settled the ball near the left corner of the penalty box, turned and ripped a shot into the upper right corner for her sixth goal of the season.
“After Fojas sent the ball in, I knew there’s a whole bunch of space on (the left side). Once I got into that space, I didn’t see a better option to send it in for someone else to shoot it, so I took the shot myself.’’
With her back to the goal, Mandaguit followed suit while possessing the ball in the left corner, spinning away from a defender to create space for herself before unleashing a 15-yarder into the upper right corner.
“It was just a couple mistakes, but I’m proud of the girls,’’ Kamehameha coach Sonya Ah Chong said. “It was just a couple errors where we weren’t watching our man.’’
Scoring chances were rare in the first half.
The Warriors cashed in on one of their three first-half corner kicks, with junior Tiana Iwata scoring her second goal of the season on a brilliant header off senior Kera Akiyama’s serve into the box in the 29th minute.
HPA answered a minute later, when junior midfielder Nanea Tavares pushed the ball down the right side and delivered a perfect cross that put senior midfielder Emily Evans all alone in front of Warriors goalkeeper Lethia McGuire.
Evans didn’t miss, drilling her 12th goal into the upper right corner to tie the match.
From that point on, the Ka Makani’s deep talent pool Ka Makani asserted itself.
“It’s a nice problem to have,’’ Perry said when discussing the difficulty in choosing a starting lineup. “They’ve pushed each other this year, and we know we have a little bit of depth at the midfield and forward positions.’’