By MATT GERHART
Tribune-Herald sports writer
Kealakehe lost its leading scorer and much of its backline, so coach Urs Leuenberger sounds pretty worried when he’s asked how big the shoes are that need to be filled.
“Twelve, 12 and half,” Leuenberger said, refering to shoe size of Avery Hardie-Jordan, one of the graduated seniors.
Any coach that had the Waveriders’ roster would probably be in a joking mood, too.
Much of last year’s team spine, Leuenberger’s favorite word used to describe the core group that led the Waveriders to their fifth Big Island Interscholastic Federation Division I title in six seasons, is gone. However, the heart and soul, BIIF Player of the Year Keoni Yates, is back, and Leuenberger is ready to unleash what he sees as a bumper crop of underclassmen.
In the coach’s eyes, that spine is getting stronger and more stable all the time.
“I look back with gratitude to everyone that has been very good to the program,” he said. “But we always have the assumption that anybody can be replaced.
“That’s why it’s so wonderful to have players like Keoni and Avery. There is always a player that wants to be like them.”
But when Yates leaves, his shoes will be harder to fill than most.
For the second consecutive year, the senior will play against the best, owning one of 18 spots on the western region team at the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program Boys Interregional, a college showcase in Sarasota, Fla., in mid-December.
Yates, who also will have a chance to make the national under-19 team after advancing through multiple tryouts, is the only player from the Big Island to ever have earned a berth, according to Leuenberger.
“It was excellent (last year),” Yates said. “Eye-opening, the level of competition was outstanding.”
He’s talked with coaches at Division I schools such as San Diego State, Seattle University and the University of the Pacific and hopes to lure scholarship offers at the showcase. Recruiters likely see the same thing that Leuenberger does: a quick, playmaking center midfielder who has the freedom to roam up top or pinch in defensively as the heart of Kealakehe’s 4-5-1 system.
With Hardie-Jordan gone at striker, the “1” this season — when it’s not Yates — figures to be Tyler Deverse, a physical presence who has one of the hardest shots on the team.
“He’s a big target for us,” Yates said. “Same size as Avery, maybe not the same speed. But as a checking forward, he going to win balls in the air and play a good role.”
The Waveriders were devastating on set pieces last season, including in a 6-2 victory against Hilo in the BIIF final. That might not be as much of a team strength this year, but Leuenberger thinks Kealakehe could have better balance and depth.
The other all-BIIF first-team returnees are goalkeeper Greyson Moore, only a sophomore, and midfielders Scott Henderson and Marc Takahashi. Takahashi and Alex Grace-Double will play more of a defensive role behind Yates, while Leuenberger expects Henderson and Nicholas Joersz to score goals in bunches on the wings. Another option up top is Daniel Caudell.
The backline is young, but Leuenberger said he had no reservations because of their talent. Freshman Laukoa Santos and sophomore Ari Mench will man the middle, with Cappy Alterman and freshman Josh Lopez on the outside.
“We lost 80 percent of our defense but groomed players last year knowing that we were going to lose them,” Leuenberger said. “We hope to even be better.”
He gave club youth soccer programs credit with helping to keep Kealakehe’s well-oiled machine rolling. The Waveriders have a roster of 25, and they have the added luxury of a 12-member developmental squad that practices with the team and can pinch in if injuries occur.
“Good senior leadership and unbelievably willing underclassmen,” he said. “This is a team that’s in a good place at the beginning of the season. The best thing about this team is it’s one we’ll see for a long, long time because of its youth.”
After he gets done playing against the best on the mainland, Yates would like to see Kealakehe fare a little better against the best in Hawaii. Unbeaten in the BIIF last season, the Waveriders advanced to the Hawaii High School Athletic Association semifinals, but were they humbled by Punahou.
“We want to get to the state final and see that experience,” Yates said.
In matches Saturday at the Hilo Bay Classic, Kealakehe beat Christian Liberty 4-0 and Keaau 6-0. In other boys matches, Honokaa edged Hilo 3-2, Hawaii Prep handled Kamehameha-Hawaii 5-1 and Konawaena and Christian Liberty played to a 1-1 draw; in girls matches, Keaau bested Waimea 3-1, Honokaa defeated Waimea 4-1 and Hilo beat Keaau 8-0.
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of BIIF soccer previews.
Next up: Christian Liberty boys, Monday.