Stafford, Cunningham: soccer swashbucklers

By now, everybody in the Hawaii soccer world knows that Kalani senior goalkeeper Michael Stafford was the man who kept the Falcons alive on Friday night.

His heroics, with three saves in a seven-round penalty kicks session, allowed Kalani to earn a 1-0 (5-4 on PKs) victory to move into Saturday night’s Division I boys soccer state championship semifinals against Mililani.

But what some people who did not attend the game or watch it on OC 16 might not know is that Stafford made perhaps his greatest stop of the night with less than two minutes to go in regulation — before the teams continued scoreless for two overtime periods, leading to PKs.

So, let’s set the scene, shall we? We know there were less than two minutes to go in regulation because the unofficial scoreboard clock at Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium stops at 2:00 near the end of each half. It’s done to remind fans that the official time is kept by the center referee.

OK, so here comes defending D-I state champion ‘Iolani, a big-time Hawaii soccer program, fluidly moving into Falcons territory. Spencer Ho, a fine ball distributor, crosses one to Matt Parke, who cranks a header right on target.

Stafford, somehow, some way, jumped and got a hand on the missile to deflect it less than a foot over the crossbar.

“What else can I say, he’s ridiculous,” Kalani coach Michael Ching said. And just in case anyone is not up on the new lingo, ridiculous in this case means incredible.

Earlier in the second half, ‘Iolani’s Max Ching swung his leg high in an attempt to shoot a high-bounding ball, and his leg hit the chest of Stafford, who was running over to corral it.

Stafford spent a minute on the ground, shaken up, but he soon recovered, and Ching received a yellow card.

“We didn’t come this far to lose,” Stafford said after the win.

But how did he make those PK saves?

“Coach tells me to always commit one way or the other,” he said. “When they (the shooters) are running up, I watch which way their shoulders are facing and I also analyze them during games and try to learn their tendencies.”

Kalani junior striker Takahiro Kosins recalls being a part of the state-title winning Falcons in 2013. He was a freshman then.

“Now, I want something to call my own,” he said.

Ching felt his team was lucky to get out of the first half.

“We sat back too much,” he said. “They (the Raiders) could have easily scored one or two goals.”

With a highly effective offense in sync all night, ‘Iolani (10-2-2) at one point strung together at least 12 passes. But, to no avail. The Raiders could not find a way to beat Stafford.

Danny Leong, a senior, came really close to becoming the match’s hero. The ‘Iolani goalkeeper made two stops in the PK portion after coming up huge a handful of times in regulation and OT. About four times, Leong jumped to punch away dangerous crosses or chips by Kalani players.

It might sound crazy, but this is his first year playing goalkeeper and his first year playing soccer since he was a young kid. He is a water polo player, with no experience in that sport as a goaltender.

“It’s a bummer to lose like that,” Leong said. “But in sports, that stuff can happen. We did all that we could to win.”

Leong’s brother, Timmmy Leong, was a force at fullback for the Raiders in their state-title run of a year ago.

“For me, it’s unimaginable that we got this far, since I had never played the position before. My teammates were so supportive and helped me out so much.”

‘Iolani was going for a 10th state title since the tournament began in 1974.

In Friday’s other semifinal, Mililani (14-1-1) got a goal on — what else? — a set play. Jeron Cunningham scored on a 20-yard direct kick about one second after fellow Trojans senior Marc Matas swung his leg and missed the ball on purpose.

The deception worked.

“I faked it so Punahou’s wall would open up,” Matas said. “I told him (Jeron) I was going to fake it and he trusted me. We thought it would obstruct the goalkeeper’s view of it.”

In addition, Mililani’s players lined up in front of Punahou’s wall to make it even more difficult for Buffanblu goalkeeper Connor Goo to see the incoming ball.

Of course, coach Steve McGehee, who has been known as a set-piece master since his days as Jeff Yamamoto’s assistant, was behind it all. The Trojans practiced the play all season, and it sure came in handy on Friday.

Cunningham, a standout fullback, is no stranger to the offensive zone. Many times throughout the season, he has moved up for direct kicks and corner kicks, and Friday’s game-winner was his fifth goal.

McGehee said he hadn’t thought about who is opponent might be if the Trojans got past Punahou.

“Now I have less than 24 hours to think about it,” he said. “It will be a tough game.”

In the OIA championship game Feb. 7, Jamin Fonseca scored with a cross that went off a Kalani player to give the Trojans a 1-0, double-overtime win over the Falcons (14-1-1). Three years ago, Mililani earned a 3-0 win over Kalani in the state championship match.

And now the two meet again, with everything on the line. The Trojans are going for their sixth state title, and the Falcons are trying for their second.

“This is no random team that we’re playing,” Cunningham said. “Kalani is a great team and they have to be a great team to beat ‘Iolani. This is the first time in a long time (three years) that two OIA teams are in the final. This is exactly what I wanted this season.”

Alec Dinsmore nearly kept Punahou (10-3-2) — which was going for a 19th state crown — alive, with four great scoring chances in the second half. One time, his shot went wide right on a breakaway after he took a through ball from Christopher Brubaker, and another time, his dangerous in-close header was saved by Mililani ’keeper JP Carson.

“It’s like a dagger,” Dinsmore, a senior, said after the devastating loss.

The suspense continues Saturday night at the Waipio Peninsula stadium, when the next dagger makes an appearance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email