They come from the Neighbor Islands, but the Baldwin Bears were anything but neighborly to Punahou on Friday night at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium.
The Bears pulled off a 3-1 shocker against the Buffanblu to move on to the Division I boys soccer state final against Hawaii Prep on Saturday night in what will be the first all-outer-island championship game.
Kane Palazzotto knows how tough it is to make it this far, especially coming from Maui.
“We were the last team to make the final from the outer islands, 1994,” the Bears coach said. “I played in this game against Punahou a couple of times and now 20-something years later we’re back.”
Palazzotto was a goalkeeper for the Bears and now he works with starting keeper Elliot Tom one-on-one every Sunday.
Tom made a huge difference in Friday’s win. With a stout defense in front of him, he was aggressive and quickly got to all the loose balls ricocheting everywhere around him. He also punched away or grabbed numerous blasts on set pieces from the Buffanblu’s powerful shooters.
“We pride ourselves on defense,” Palazzotto said. “Not giving up a goal from play (the Buffanblu’s goal was on a direct kick) today against that team was unbelievable.
“To get the goals early (Baldwin took a 2-0 lead) helped us settle in, especially the way we try to play. They made it really, really tough today to play the style we wanted to play, but our team is super resilient this year.”
Tom credited his defensive teammates, too.
“Most of the time, especially during the MIL season, I never had to make many saves,” he said. “All of them do the hard work keeping (opponents) out and I just had to clean up in the back. Any long ball over, that’s always mine. And the defense knows that. I struggled a little bit in the first half tonight, but in the second half we did a much better job.”
About Tom, Palazzotto said, “This guy puts in the work. He wants it. It’s easy to coach kids like that. And having a confident keeper is a big part of the defense.”
Baldwin has been to the semifinals twice in the recent past. Now, it’s on to the final due to a win over what sometimes seems like an unbeatable team in Punahou (12-2), which has 20 state titles to its credit.
“It’s never easy,” Palazzotto said. “I don’t think I’ve beaten them before. We’ve been in position a couple of times. That’s what we talked about — why not us tonight. That was the whole conversation. We’ve got one more game to go and do it … and not give up a goal and go get a goal.”
Added Tom: “As long as we stay as a team and we fight for each other, we’re going to do great things. That’s all that matters at the end of the day. We stick together as a team and we’re not individuals. As individuals we’re nothing, but as a team, we make a good soccer team.”
Baldwin (10-1-1) has another ace in their hand — senior striker Angelo Deloso-Flocco, one of the best players in the state for the last three years.
“Yes, and we do have No. 7,” Palazzotto said. “He’s special.”
Tom, a junior, knows two of the HPA juniors well — striker Jake Schneider and fullback Sihkea Jim — from club soccer.
“Two Neighbor Island teams playing in the final, I think it’s a special thing,” he said.
In Fridays’ other semifinal, Schneider’s late goal gave Ka Makani (14-0) a 3-2 win over King Kekaulike.
Punahou coach David Trifonovitch is not completely surprised by the rise of the Neighbor Island teams.
“I knew it was coming,” he said. “I could see it getting better year after year. I knew they had the talent, but the last couple of years, even though they may have had some better teams, the nerves of playing on Oahu and all that would kick in.”
Trifonovitch summed up the loss and how difficult it is to achieve what they fell short of — a third straight state title.
“Baldwin is a very good team,” he said. “They played to what we were giving them, which is basically the counterattacks. It was a very good corner kick they scored on the first one. We threw everything we had at them and they withstood it, so you’ve got to respect that. Repeating is hard. Winning three in a row is even harder. Our team had the fire and sometimes you need a little luck and we just couldn’t find the back of the net.”
He was also impressed with Tom’s performance.
“I’d see a ball that should have poked in easily and suddenly his body is flying across there and he makes the save.” Trifonovitch said. “He did a fantastic job.”
Trifonovitch was asked for his thoughts on Baldwin vs. Hawaii Prep and this is what he had to say:
“I think Baldwin is faster and a more physical team. It’s going to depend on how HPA is going to play. HPA is very calculated and they like to move the ball around a lot, so it will depend on whether the physicality of Baldwin will get HPA in a dither that they won’t be able to handle. That’s what we do, we put so much pressure on them (Baldwin) and they couldn’t get out. We were in their half, in their half. I don’t think HPA can pressure like that.”
Hawaii Prep coach Richard Braithwaite admitted after Friday’s win over Na Alii (9-1-3) that his team hasn’t been able to play its game so far in the tournament because of the intricate defenses and game speed.
“We’re going to talk through it tonight and find a way to slow the tempo down (in the final),” he said.
If they end up on top, though, Ka Makani will have made the giant leap from two-time Division II state champs to a D-I state champ — a huge feat.
Schneider did not want to rate his team’s chances, saying instead, “The job is not over. Hopefully we can execute tomorrow night. Other than that, I’m going to stay silent.”