By KEVIN JAKAHI
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Last season, the Kealakehe girls scored a lot of goals, played championship-caliber defense and produced the soccer team’s best ever Big Island Interscholastic Federation campaign.
The Waveriders edged crosstown rival Konawaena 1-0 for their first league title in the school’s 17-year history and finished with a 14-0 record, before going 1-2 at states.
McKenna Davidson scored a league-high 21 goals and Kari Van Mols was second with 20 scores. But neither scored during the BIIF championship.
The game-winner came on a penalty kick, and goalie Sullivan Schuster pitched a shutout, adding evidence to the old theory that defense wins championships.
It will need to be a blueprint again. The offense’s scoring surplus has been drained. Graduation took away one ace striker while the other is on the mend.
Kealakehe opens the BIIF season today against Konawaena with a renewed emphasis on defense because someone will have to shoulder the scoring load with Davidson’s departure to Pacific University and Van Mols’ preseason knee injury.
Davidson got into 15 games, including seven starts, and scored four goals and had one assist for the Boxers, a Division III team in Forest Grove, Ore., which finished with an 8-8-4 record. The freshman forward joined her sister Kayla Davidson, a junior backup goalie, who made 28 saves, allowed three goals and posted a 2-1-1 record in five games.
Van Mols, who made the All-BIIF Division I first team along with Davidson, hurt her knee at the Hawaii Prep tourney on Friday. Six minutes into the game against Kauai’s Kapaa High, she collided with an opposing player.
“Hopefully, it’s just a sprain,” Kealakehe coach Jim Smith said. “She’ll be out most likely four to six weeks. We’re hoping she’s back at the first of the year.”
That would put the senior striker out for at least six games, turning the scoring attention to sophomore forward Lexie Cuaresma and junior forward Ana Tuppein.
“We should be competitive,” Smith said. “We’re not totally super strong like last year. Lexie has really good foot skills and definitely has potential.
“Ana is very power and a very strong player. She can run through someone if she has to. She’s very strong with the ball. You need something near the goal and that’s determination.”
The defense is led by senior sweeper Caili Ebaniz, an All-BIIF first-team pick and a three-year starter. It’s reinforced with junior fullback Kailii Smith, an honorable mention and no relation to coach Smith, and a deep roster of 20 players.
“Caili is extremely fast and very powerful in the air,” Smith said. “She’s one of the best headers on the island. She ran the defense last year and did a really good job. The defense should be really strong. She and Kaili are two of the top defenders in the league.”
The Waveriders have experience with 14 returning players, including nine starters. They finished 2-2-2 in the preseason. They searched hard for last season’s mindset.
“We lost in the Baldwin finals on penalty kicks on Maui,” Smith said. “We’ve got six girls who are totally determined and want to get another BIIF title,” Smith said. “The others haven’t jumped on board yet, in my opinion. It’s a team-oriented team. That’s the biggest challenge. If the young ones can play as hard as the older ones, we can win another title again.
“That’s the biggest challenge for us. Last year, everybody was pretty much on board right away. I like this team. We had a good time on Maui. It was the best team experience. All the girls get along. We have to control the middle of the field. If we get that under control, the rest of the game will flow. I’m not worried about the defense. It’s the midfield and forwards that have to gel.”
Senior midfielder Jade Richmond, a two-year starter, will patrol the center. And if anything gets loose in the backfield, the Waveriders have a good insurance policy in Schuster, a 5-foot-11 junior and the reigning BIIF goalkeeper of the year.
“Jade has very good foot skills. She doesn’t get too emotional. She’s a very calm player, which is great,” Smith said. “Sully has all kinds of potential. She covers a lot of space. She always gets the ball and makes plays.
“She looks awkward because she’s a big kid. But she has good technique and is really good with ball in the air. She gets them really well.”
The Kealakehe coach is keeping his game plan simple for the rematch with the Wildcats, who graduated nine seniors and return just two in midfielders Saxon Nagata (10 goals) and speedy Ua Ruedy (nine).
“Honestly, I’m hopeful that nobody gets hurt,” he said. “I want us to play hard for 80 minutes. We had a hard time with that in the preseason. We get a good challenge with Kona right off the bat. I’m looking for a good, clean soccer for the first game. It’s not the end of the world if we lose.”