By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Honokaa’s Preston Branco has some tendencies that drive Maurice Miranda crazy. But the junior’s also developing a habit that his soccer coach can certainly live with: delivering big goals in big situations.
Branco scored twice, including the tiebreaking goal off a corner kick Friday, to lift the Dragons past rival Christian Liberty 3-2 and into the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division II championship game on Oahu.
“My intent was to make a cross, but the wind took it,” Branco said of his corner kick, which hit the back post and caromed in during the 52nd minute at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex. “Me and my teammates are playing very hard and connecting.”
Mid-Pacific beat Hawaii Prep 1-0 in the other semifinal, keeping the Big Island Interscholastic Federation from having two teams in the final. The Dragons and Owls will play for the title at 5 p.m. today, and each is looking for their third title in the seven-year history of the Division II tournament.
The Dragons (11-3-3) won back-to-back crowns in 2011 and ‘12 with a star-studded cast that simply blitzed the competition in going undefeated during the latter title run. Midfielder Tony Connors is the only holdover starter from those years, and Miranda said this year’s team — which didn’t reach states until it outlasted Kamehameha-Hawaii in a shootout in the BIIF’s third-place game — has taken on a special personality all its own.
“Defense had been keeping us in every game,” Miranda said. “This team plays with less skill, but the guys work so hard and with so much determination that they make up for it.”
Branco, a transfer from Kamehameha-Hawaii, also had a hand in the goal that helped Honokaa take a 2-1 lead just before halftime against the Canefire. He got his foot on Sean Perala’s cross, and Zechariah Ugalde finished back post.
Earlier, Branco had just entered the game when he scored off a rebound after Sean Quinlan took a corner kick.
Branco is enjoying a memorable postseason run. In the third-place game against the Warriors, he netted a goal to send the match to overtime, and then he stared during the penalty kick session, makes three saves in goal and converting on his PK.
“He’s in the right place a lot,” Miranda said of Branco. “He’s kind of lazy and he’s not always on the same page with his teammates. He doesn’t always work hard enough, but when he gets the ball he’s a dangerous player.”
Miranda said Honokaa held a 28-14 advantage in shots, including a 16-4 in the first half.
Nakaiya Kerr scored a goal for the BIIF runner-up Canefire (12-5) that tied the game 2-2 during the opening minutes of the second half.
“It was game on after that,” Miranda said. “We controlled the first half, but Christian Liberty picked up the the intensity.”
He came away pleased with how his team was able to defend Christian Liberty’s high-scoring trio of Kerr, Louis Moylan, who scored on a penalty kick to open the scoring early in the first half, and Sequoya Kerr.
“Those guys play with so much skill, every time one of them touches the ball you just hold your breath,” he said. “Tony Connors played big in the middle. So did Kyle Ohta and Jevin Dement.”
After his match, Miranda got a chance to watch Mid-Pacific (6-4-4), the champion of the Interscholastic League of Honolulu, and was impressed. The Owls are seeking their first title since 2010, when they beat Honokaa in the final.
“It’s going to take a real good effort to beat them,” he said.
Mid-Pacific 1, Hawaii Prep 0: Payton Boyd’s goal early in the second half lifted the Owls into their second state final.
Twice in the match, Ka Makani coach Rich Braithwaite said he was screaming for no-calls that could have resulted in penalty kicks. Other than those instances, however, he said BIIF champion HPA (11-4-3) was completely shutdown.
“We didn’t have a single good chance other than that,” he said. “That’s the best team we’ve played all year. They controlled 80 percent of possession.”
Goalkeeper Trent Wise helped keep Ka Makani in the game with two sterling saves, Braithwaite said, and he lauded sweeper Blake Hooser for an “amazing game” and midfielder Jack Austin for gutting out a hamstring injury.
In a rematch of the BIIF final, HPA and Christian Liberty meet at 1 p.m. today for third place.
Kalani 3, Kealakehe 2, PKs: The Falcons prevailed in a shootout to win a Division I consolation match.
Michael Von Rumohr and Joshua Lopez netted goals for the BIIF champion Waveriders, who finished their season 14-2-1.
The Falcons (12-4) will play Oahu Interscholastic Association rival Kaiser in the fifth-place game today.