Hawaiian Electric Game of the Week
Punahou, Mililani set for championship clash in D1 final


 



WAIPAHU — For both the Punahou and Mililani boys soccer teams, a late-January loss has proven to be just the spark that each needed for a deep postseason run.

That run will culminate Saturday night, when the Buffanblu and Trojans will face-off in the final game of the season. The teams will vie for The Queen's Medical Center/HHSAA Division I State Championship at 7 p.m. at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium.

Both squads were put to the test in hard-fought semifinal victories Friday night. Mililani build an early lead, then held off a pesky Waiakea team on its way to a 3-2 win in the afternoon contest and Punahou overcame a first-half red card to escape with a 2-1 win over Kalani in the nightcap.

The Interscholastic League of Honolulu champion Buffanblu (10-1-1) are the top overall seed in the 12-team tournament. They had an opening-round bye and eased their way to a 4-1 win over Kaiser in Thursday's quarterfinal round.

The Trojans (13-2-1), who finished fifth in the Oahu Interscholastic Association tournament two weeks ago, started their state tournament run on the Valley Isle. They won, 2-0, at Kamehameha-Maui in Monday's first round before posting a 1-0 upset of OIA champ and tournament No. 2 seed Kapolei in their quarterfinal Thursday.

Both teams have rebounded from losses in league play two weeks ago to reach Saturday's championship final.

Punahou was saddled with its lone loss of the season in its ILH finale against Kamehameha, 2-0, on Jan. 29.

"It honestly really helped us, because we went into that game to win," Buffanblu coach David Trifonovitch said. "We wanted to go undefeated and have a great season, but we were just flat — it's just one of those days you kind of laid an egg — and luckily it was a good time to do it because the practices the next week were way more intense, a lot more concentration, it really picked up our game and got us going and tonight's game was the kind of stuff we knew we were gonna be faced with, so it really helped."

Mililani's last loss came just one night prior to Punahou's, when it came up short in a penalty kick shootout to Kalani in the quarterfinal round of the OIA tournament on Jan. 28.

"It was one of those eye-openers in the sense that, I've always told the boys that we have the ability to compete with everyone and lose to anyone and not to say that Kalani is someone that we should beat, but we had our chances early — missed a penalty kick, missed a couple of open-netters — and then lost in PKs, but hats off to Kalani for doing what they did to us," Mililani coach Steve McGehee said after his team's quarterfinal win on Thursday.

The Buffanblu are seeking their second consecutive state title and fourth in five seasons. They have won a record 21 championships in the 46-year history of the state tournament.

The Trojans, meanwhile, will try for their first state title since 2015 and seventh overall. They won a string of four straight championships from 2001-'04.

Saturday's match will be the first meeting between the teams this season. The teams did scrimmage each other in the preseason, with Punahou coming away with an unofficial 3-0 win.


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Punahou's Jacob Moore celebrates after the go-ahead score in a win against Kalani. Moore received a pass from Noah Edwards and powered a left-footed shot from about 25 yards out into the left side of the goal. Michael Lasquero | SL    Purchase image

Punahou never trailed in its semifinal against Kalani Friday night, but it most certainly had its back against the proverbial wall.

The Buffanblu played the final 54 minutes short-handed after Laakea Salvani was red-carded for a hard tackle from behind on a Kalani player.

Salvani, who gave his team the lead with his header off of a Jacob Moore corner kick in the 14th minute, was sent off by the center referee and is consequently ineligible for Saturday's tournament final.

"It was a lot of diversity and it was definitely tough coming back, especially with 10 men, but we talked about it with coach and we just had to put it together," said Moore, a senior midfielder. "Coach knew we were the better team even with 10 men, but at the end of the day I think we just played the better game and we just kept pushing them."
 
It was the first time the Buffanblu were down a man in any game this season.

"It took us being able to overcome that adversity at halftime," Trifonovitch said. "I mean, to get a guy thrown out in the first part of the game and have to figure out, ‘OK, now we're playing with ten,' you know, that took some character, so we talked about ‘what's inside of you? How are you going to react to it? Are you going to come out like animals, or are you gonna come out composed and be able to play?,' and I think they composed themselves pretty well."

The foul by Salvani occurred just outside of the 18-yard box and gave Kalani a direct free kick. Travis Brubaker's restart deflected off of a Punahou defender, as did two rebounds in the same sequence, but none found the back of the net. However, the Buffanblu committed a foul in the box and Brubaker converted the penalty kick into the lower right corner of the goal for the equalizer in the 29th minute.

The score held through halftime and all the way to 71st minute, when Moore received a pass from Noah Edwards and powered a left-footed shot from about 25 yards out into the left side of the goal.

"It was from Noah on the outside. I saw the opportunity, I just touched it forward, I saw (Kalani goalkeeper) Cory (Takiguchi) was kind of on the weak side on the right, so I just curled it left and hit the upper post basically, or in the corner, at least," Moore said.

It was just Moore's third goal of the season and first since Jan. 14.

Moore, along with fellow midfielders Edwards and Johnny Dodge, as well as outside-backs Tycen Santos and Rayden Daijo proved to be pivotal after the Buffanblu lost Salvani, one of their two center-backs and a crucial piece to their defense.

"Instead of going with three (forwards) up top, we went to two, but we kept our three mids and we tried to build with our outside-backs," Trifonovitch said. "(Kalani) gave us a lot of space with our outside-backs and our outside-backs became into our offense and started getting balls in, so we still, I think, managed to keep the possession and the composure and all that. We would have liked to have more chances on goal, but one was enough."

But Punahou wasn't in the just clear yet. About four minutes after Moore scored, the Falcons appeared to equalize for a second time when Brubaker put the ball in the back of the net off of a cross from Brandon Lee. However, Lee was ruled to have been offsides when he received a pass forward from teammate Kanta Oka and the goal was negated.

With about two minutes remaining, Buffanblu goalkeeper Cade Matsumoto made a leaping one-handed save on a header attempt by Kalani's Jenson Fuse to preserve his team's lead.

Kalani was trying to reach the state final for the first time since 2015.

The Falcons (13-3-1) will play Waiakea for third place at 3 p.m. Saturday on field No. 15.

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The Trojans were led by senior midfielder Liam McGehee's two goals, both of which came in the first seven minutes of play. Michael Lasquero | SL    Purchase image

Trojans seized early lead, then hung on to edge Warriors

Mililani did all of its scoring in the first 26 minutes and then withstood a valiant comeback attempt by Waiakea to return to its first title game since in five years.

The Trojans were led by senior midfielder Liam McGehee's two goals, both of which came in the first seven minutes of play.

In the second minute, McGehee crossed a pass from the left flank in the direction of teammate Jordan Fernandez in front of the goal. It appeared that Fernandez got his right foot on the pass and redirected it into the netting, but it was determined that McGehee's cross deflected off of a Waiakea defender for an own goal and McGehee was credited with the score.

"Liam whipped it in and then I saw the (defender) coming in hard and I just challenged it and then either his or my foot hit it in, front post," said Fernandez a senior forward.

Just five minutes later, the Trojans doubled up its lead on a set piece. A foul against the Warriors gave McGehee a direct free kick from the middle of the field and about 21 yards out. The First Team All-Hawaii midfielder curved a left-footed shot around a four-man wall of Waiakea defenders and past goalkeeper Jeremy Spain.

Mililani continued to build upon its lead with Fernandez's goal off an assist from Jacob Nakasone in the 26th minute.

"I saw the ball floating in the air, the goalie challenged it, he played me instead of the ball, then it squirted out to Jacob and Jacob found me and I put it in," Fernandez said of his ninth goal this year.

Prior to the goal by Fernandez, Waiakea moved center-back John Grover upfield to an serve as an attacking-mid — a move that has paid dividends for the Warriors in a number of come-from-behind wins this season.

The switch paid off almost instantly.

A Mililani corner kick was cleared by the Waiakea defense and led to a counterattack. Kyson Yamashiro sent a pass out to Grover on the right flank and the four-year starter and team captain outraced a Trojan defender and had a 1-v-1 chance against goalkeeper Nicholas Gaston. Grover put his shot across the front of the goal and into the left side of the net to get the Warriors on the board in the 30th minute.

"We had an idea of what we wanted to do, it kind of came to the way we thought it would be with the way they would line up and with where we had our chances," Steve McGehee said. "We got a couple of early goals, which you would have thought would relieved pressure, but once Mr. John Grover went up front it was a different kettle of fish and they became extremely dynamic and we had to deal with Kai (Biegler) and John basically running at us the whole time."

Waiakea kept the pressure on in the minutes that followed. Just about three minutes before halftime, Grover penetrated the right side of the Mililani defense once again and ripped a shot from no more than 15 yards out that forced Gaston to make a spectacular leaping save.

"It was coming in real fast, but I had to adjust to it pretty quickly, I mean, it's a quality striker that they have on their side and I was ready for it, but it definitely was a hard shot," Gaston said. "(Grover) definitely caused problems. We do have a smaller defense. John was obviously a big presence up there in the midfield, but he really causes some problems. He's a quality player, but we were able to hold him just enough."

The Warriors inched even closer late in the game. Biegler got through the defense in the 73rd minute and put a shot from about 10 yards out into the right side of the goal. Ultimately, however, the hole they found themselves in proved to be too deep to dig out of this time.

"It was a little too much, we're used to the one- and two-(goal deficits); we gave away a little bit too much," said Waiakea coach David Urakami, whose team came back from one-goal deficits to beat both Hilo, in the Big Island Interscholastic Federation final on Feb. 1, and Kalaheo, in Thursday's state quarterfinal round.

Waiakea, which is making its first appearances in states since it was eliminated by Mililani in the first round of the 2018 tournament, had won eight of its last nine games before Friday.

"I'm so proud of these guys. This is where we wanted to be and they're living the dream, so it's good," Urakami said. "We were right there knocking on the door, so I'm proud of them."

Steve McGehee credited the Warriors (11-3-1) for a well-played game and top-notch effort.

"It kind of shows that, like I said, we can beat everyone we face and we can lose to anyone, so we tried to lose to anyone there today, in the sense of not being clean and finishing off a game, but at the end of the day, I mean, it's all about the results," McGehee said. "Would we have loved to win and not given up a goal? Yeah, but I know one thing about that team. They, Waiakea, have fought every time they've had their backs up against the wall and this time they came up short, but the last two games they've done tremendous fighting back and winning games, so hats off to them."



Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].


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