By J.R. De GROOTE
Stephens Media Hawaii
KEALAKEHE — With the majority of its starters on the bench, Kealakehe wrapped up an undefeated season, squeaking out a 1-0 win against rival Konawaena in a Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I matchup at Julian R. Yates field Thursday night.
With the Kealakehe win, the westside rivals will faceoff Wednesday in the BIIF semifinals at Kealakehe High School.
“Starters, nonstarters, what we saw today was the new generation,” said Kealakehe head coach Urs Leuenberger. “We came into this game with varying emotions. You want to carry out an undefeated season — even though it does not matter in the standing — but I had nightmares of injuries. Since we are going to see these guys on Wednesday anyway, I really didn’t want to risk anything.”
With reigning Player of the Year Keoni Yates, goal-scoring machine Scott Henderson and first-team All-BIIF goalkeeper Greyson Moore on the sideline, the Kealakehe backups got a chance to shine. However, with the Waveriders (12-0-1) often securing many games this in the first half, the bench had gained a lot of experience and were no pushovers on the pitch.
Kealakehe struck first, midway through the first half on a goal by Kyle Nickelsen. Nickelsen was the beneficiary of a fortunate bounce in front of the net, and easily put the ball past the Konawaena keeper.
“These kids came out and did fabulous and fought against a tough Konawaena team,” Leuenberger said. “We wanted to win to set the tone for the future. It’s great experience for them to play a full game tonight. You cannot train that kind of experience. At Kealakehe we always look forward. There are not first-stringers or second-stringers. Situations like today’s game let me mix it up a bit. I’m convinced that even when we lose some seniors next year, we can maintain a top program.”
Chances were few and far between for the Wildcats(7-4-2). Junior forward Michael Gusman had a few early looks at the net, but was unable to capitalize on the opportunities.
Konawaena’s best chance of the first half came on a 30-yard boot from Brandon Howes that deflected off the crossbar, into the air, and safety into the hands of Kealakehe goalkeeper Ian Denzler — who was filling in for Moore.
Coming out of the break, it was much of the same, with the team’s trading a few chances and Kealakehe maintaining a slight edge. The Wildcats lacked a spark.
“At the half, we really talked to the kids about picking up their energy,” Konawaena assistant coach Phil Fukushima said. “I think we got it in the last 15 minutes, but we did not get it for most of the game. We had our opportunities we could not finish on.”
Despite the faster pace and increased offensive pressure in the closing minutes, Konawaena failed to record a goal against the sturdy Kealakehe defense. However, the Wildcats get another shot in less than a week.
“Our season has been very up and down,” Fukushima said. “We have had really good games, and games where we could have improved on a lot of things. Kealakehe has an excellent program and are far and away the team to beat. They have been for a long time. We are excited to go play them in the semifinals.”
Konawaena won the BIIF title in Division II last season — the first for boys soccer in 32 seasons — and with a talented, senior-laden squad, decided it was time to make the jump to Division I. Playing rival Kealakehe — a team that has won five of the last seven BIIF titles — in the postseason now adds a little more intensity to the already fierce matchup.
“We felt it was time to step it up for our program to go to Division I,” Fukushima said. “We see it as a natural step to build our program. We want to make sure kids in our district have a chance to play at the Division I level. The rivalry ramps it up for everybody, and now it’s win or go home. Everybody has a chance once that whistle blows.”