Picture the Mililani boys soccer brain trust sitting down together, trying to figure out a way to score a goal.
In one sense, it sounds funny because the Trojans usually don’t have problems scoring goals. But, in another sense, it’s as serious as can be.
Everything was on the line on Saturday as the Trojans went up against fierce OIA rival Kalani in the Division I state final. The last time the two teams met, Mililani was fortunate to score late in double overtime for the league title. Jamin Fonseca got that game-winner, but it was really a cross that bounced off a Falcons player and somewhat lucky.
On Friday, prior to the Trojans’ semifinal win over Punahou, Mililani first-year head coach (and longtime assistant before that) Steve McGehee and his staff watched Kalani goalkeeper Michael Stafford stymie ‘Iolani with three penalty kick saves.
Three PK saves? How can you possibly make a game plan against someone who can do that? What, exactly, could the coaches do to help the Mililani boys get past this big stumbling block?
The answer, according to McGehee: make him move. That’s what they devised. So, if you go back and look at the stats or the TV replay of the final you’ll notice that the Trojans did not pepper Stafford with shots. Part of that is because the Kalani offense was in full attack mode, but when the Trojans put the pressure on, they went for the crosses and not the direct shots. Stafford made three saves, compared to nine by the Trojans’ JP Carson.
“Shooting it right at him, he’s just too tough,” McGehee said after the Trojans defeated the Falcons 1-0 at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium for the D-I state crown. “You’re not going to score that way.”
So, it’s absolutely no surprise that Mililani’s goal came on a cross on a spectacular all-around play. Marc Matas and Jarad Choquette combined for a give-and-go at midfield before Matas — instead of a frontal assault on goal — sent the ball into the right corner, where winger Isaiah Manding was sprinting. Manding then placed a perfect cross on the ground and Choquette slid to slam it home.
With a defense like the Trojans have, a 1-0 lead in the 35th minute means a lot, a real lot. Kalani was facing a huge uphill climb.
And that Mililani back row in front of Carson was rock solid. The Trojans jammed the middle and made it extremely difficult for Falcons’ shooters to find space and push the ball through toward the goal.
“They are the anchor of our team,” McGehee said about his defenders, a group that includes Jeron Cunningham, Isaiah Kuloloia, Jonny Connor and Fonseca, among others.
Late in the second half, Cunningham made a match-saving, diving clear of a ball that had just been shot by a Kalani player in a crowd deep inside the box.
Falcons coach Michael Ching was somewhat distraught after the contest, pacing by himself off to the side while his players were accepting the second-place award. He was slapping his baseball cap against his leg, thinking about what could have been.
Ching, who led Kalani to a state crown in 2013, was also thinking about what he could have done differently.
“I need to do a better job at teaching situational stuff,” he said.
He was referring, mostly, to a Mililani tactic toward the end of the game. In an effort to stall for time, the Trojans on several occasions sent the ball deep into the Kalani corner, where Mililani teammates worked to physically shield it from Falcons defenders without trying to make passes.
The plan worked, and Ching said, “I knew they were going to do that, and I sent too many of our players back, even the forwards, to defend them. I should have sent fewer back so we would have had more up front to get the ball to when we got it back.”
Ching also lamented the fact that the match could easily have been 0-0 after 90 minutes.
“That’s what makes Mililani so great,” he said. “They always find a way to get that one goal to beat you.”
That was true on Saturday, when the Trojans called on an army of advisers to find the one vulnerable spot in Kalani’s armor that the players could exploit and bring the school its sixth state boys soccer championship.