Boys Soccer
Trojans made most of their depth en route to 2015 boys state soccer crown

Mililani boys' coach Steve McGehee has a lot of fond memories about the 2014-'15 prep soccer season — which just so happened to end with a state championship for his Trojans.

The crowning moment for Mililani came with its 1-0 win over Kalani on Feb. 28, 2015, in the title game of the HHSAA Division I state tournament at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex main stadium.

"I think it was the culmination of events that brought us to that, when I looked at how our season played out," McGehee said.

Mililani compiled an overall record of 15-1 and won its final 10 games en route to the program's sixth state championship that winter. McGehee has been a part of all six, but this one was his first without longtime Trojans coach Jeff Yamamoto, who had stepped down following the 2013-'14 season.

"I guess how they have BC and AD, that was my ‘AD' was that year," laughed McGehee, who began his run with the program in 1999 and assisted Yamamoto for 15 years prior to ascending to the top job.

But that didn't mean Yamamoto was ever too far away.

"Jeff was still a big part of the program even though he wasn't in the program. I believe he made almost every game, if not every game," McGehee explained. "We had video of our games that we would review and go to his house and go over it and he would kind of whisper things to me like, ‘You might want to consider this,' and you know, it's wise to listen to him."

As an assistant, McGehee was able to devote his time to tweaking tactics and game planning, but he quickly found the head coach's job to entail much more off-the-field duties.

"Obviously Jeff not being there was different, but it wasn't just myself and Jeff — we had seven or eight coaches that would help us and I had a really good group around me that year of returning coaches — so the day-to-day training and all that really didn't change significantly, it was more me now managing the business of Mililani soccer, be it the paperwork, be it the concession stands and all these little things that I didn't have to take into account (before), the parental management of it all, dealing with the athletic department, all of those things that I got to avoid became front and center," McGehee recalled.

McGehee said that he was able to lean on a number of team parents to ease the learning curve of his job transition.

"That really alleviated the outside-of-soccer, outside-of-the-lines problems and business of the program and let me focus on what I wanted to do and oversee the big picture," he added. "There's one parent that would always come up, she was one of my team parents, and she would say, ‘Don't worry. I have faith in you,' basically saying, ‘We got the rest of the stuff. You go take care of the boys,' and we were able to go do that as a group."

And while the big picture revealed no shortage of talent to McGehee, there was certainly some chemistry to be built.

"I recollect that we played Punahou like right out the box in just a scrimmage and they took us to task that day," McGehee disclosed of a November meeting. "That made it come full picture to us knowing that if we're going to have any success, there's going to have to be significant improvement."

But the potential was there. After all, except for a half-dozen or so first-year players, the rest of the Trojans' roster returned from the previous year.

"I'm guessing of 26 or 27 kids, probably about 14 or so were seniors," McGehee said. "But they all came from different places, they all came from different clubs, some of them played a lot of soccer, some of them played just a little bit, so meshing that kind of mentality, that group together, basically the pieces fell into place eventually."

Wins always boost team morale, but McGehee knew that there were barriers to break down amongst his players before the victories came.

"Myself and my coaching staff brought up very early on that this was a very short time frame together and ‘if you guys are going to have any success, you gotta band together,' and we coined the phrase ‘band of brothers,' because I told them,' You guys don't need to like each other, but you better go out there and fight for each other,' and really I think retrospectively looking at the season and how it played out, that's what they did," McGehee said.

The way the regular season schedule was laid out proved to be beneficial for Mililani, which outscored its first five opponents in the Oahu Interscholastic Association Western Division, 31-0.

But then came a wake-up call in the form of a 1-0 loss at Kapolei on Jan. 6, 2015.

"I think having the way that first five games came together, they weren't challenging in the sense of the competition level just wasn't as high and then we go to Kapolei, which has been our nemesis for the better part of probably their program's existence," McGehee said.

The Trojans got a much-needed bounce-back win three days later — 1-0 over Campbell — but it didn't come easy. The difference was Kalahikiola Judd's first-half goal, one of his team-high 15 that he scored that season.

"Campbell is Campbell," McGehee said of the Sabers. "They've been a tough team for a long time now and that specific game we had some good looks but at the end of the day we gave ourself a chance to win by not giving away a goal and we ended up getting a goal in that game to kind of put us through, but it's just knowing that your gauntlet is ahead of you, you're going to have tough game after tough game after tough game and it was that kind of runout for us."

After a 3-0 win over Aiea, McGehee's bunch was put the test four days later in a nail-biter against Pearl City at Bino Neves Stadium on Jan. 20.

"My recollection is I think we were down, 2-1, at some point and it was kind of one of those turning-point games, because other than Kapolei, those were the only two gals we gave up in league and that to me was a big game for us because it showed that we had the fortitude because I believe the game-winning goal came, I want to say, within the last two minutes of the game or so," McGehee said of his team's come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Chargers.

McGehee recalled that Spencer Hokama chased down a ball near the end line before he slotted a cross to Judd for the winning goal. He remembered seeing several videos of the sequence shot by different parents that revealed the intense nature of the match.

"I told the boys the following day, the coaches pulled them all together and I basically separated out the teams — because in tough games like that, unfortunately not all 26, 27 guys get to play — and I said, ‘There were players and there were participants.' " He went on, "The parents are participants and they live vicariously through (the players), the coaches are participants and they live vicariously through them, but the players that were on the sideline that didn't play, they didn't just sit on their hands, they were rooting for the boys and really pushing for it, and I said, ‘Those guys on the sidelines were probably as important as the guys that were playing in the game,' because they knew that whatever the focus was, whatever our goals were, it was done together and not just the 11 guys out there, or the 14, 15 guys that got to play that game."

The win was nice, to be sure, but the victory had an even greater result in McGehee's mind.

"I think that game kind of pointed out our flaws and it also galvanized us in the process, so it was a very important game to that team that year," he said.

The Trojans went on to close out the regular season with an 8-0 rout of Leilehua before drawing a first-round by in the 12-team OIA tournament. A 2-0 win over Moanalua in the quarterfinals set-up a semifinal showdown against Kalaheo on Feb. 5. Ultimately, McGehee's bunch got through with a goal by MJ Matas in double-overtime. Two nights later, it was Jamin Fonseca's goal in double-OT to lift Mililani over Kalani for the league championship.

McGehee went back to the result against Kapolei as providing a pivotal push to the finish line for his team.

"The loss basically showed us that we had to pay attention to detail, make sure we don't let the small things slip, that really I think was of value to us at the end of our season because you're bound to make a mistake, it's how do you recover from it and who supports it so that the mistake doesn't cost you a goal or cost you a game," McGehee said. "I guess the Kapolei loss forced us to really self-reflect and really make sure we do everything we can do to win and to be the best we can, because you're not going to win every game. It would be nice if you could, but it just didn't work out that way that year."

It also helps when you hold the opponent scoreless, as the Trojans did in 13 of their 16 games that season. In fact, they allowed just five goals all year.

"We had been fairly stingy about not giving away goals that year, which was good. Obviously you win games with scoring, but you win championships with your defense," McGehee said.

He explained that the core of the defense was made up of a half-dozen players in center-backs Jeron Cunningham and Isaiah Kuloloia, outside-backs Jamin Fonseca, Trent Kamiya, Aukahi Nolan, as well as defensive-mid Treyton Kong.

"Treyton was as important to the defense as the defenders were because he basically protected those guys because a lot of times Jamin and Trent, the outside-backs, were always going forward so it was kind of a tight triangle in the middle that had to defend for counter-attacks and things like that and Treyton was very important to that space," McGehee said.

McGehee noted that the come-from-behind win over Pearl City likely wouldn't have taken place if not for a hustle play by Nolan.

"There was a breakaway and I recall it vividly where if he doesn't run this guy down, we probably give away another goal and the game's over," McGehee said. "So that type of effort in that defensive core was key. They were very stingy, but it was from hard work that they did it."

Mililani drew the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the state tournament. It opened up a 4-0 lead on Kahuku in the quarterfinal round before the Red Raiders netted a pair of goals in the final minutes en route to a 4-2 final score.

But a semifinal match-up against perennial powerhouse Punahou would take place six days later, as for the first time the state tournament utilized a two-week format.

McGehee welcomed the break.

"I think it benefitted us," he said. "We were a deep team, but we also had injuries going into the back end of it and I think that break-up of the tournament, versus it being a four-day blaster sort of helped us survive the back-end games, so that to me was, I think, a good thing."

The Trojans made use of the rest and flipped the script against the Buffanblu from their preseason scrimmage. A direct free kick from about 22 yards out — over a wall of defenders — off the right foot of Cunningham in the game's 50th minute snuck just inside the right post for the lone goal in Mililani's 1-0 win.

"Jeron had worked on that all year long trying to go over the top of the wall and we got a foul and created a situation where it finally came to fruition and he was able to bury it," McGehee said. "I've seen the ankle from what his position looked like on the camera that they would have shown it, but then for some odd reason there was a parent that was standing behind the goal and had the video angle and it was like, that was just the perfect shot. The ‘keeper couldn't see it coming until it was too late."

The victory set-up a rematch of the OIA championship match against Kalani.

"When you face the Kalani team and the way they were coached, if you're not ready to play, you're not going to do well against them and so that to me was really the culmination of all of our efforts," McGehee said of the lead-up to the state final.

"The only thing I recall just going into that last game was I wouldn't say he were limping across the finish line, but (Judd) still had a hamstring issue, I think (Matas) had whacked his foot really good and thought he broke it and there were other guys that were nicked up, so we didn't limp across the finish line, but our depth definitely helped us get there," he said.

That depth proved most beneficial in the championship game. With Judd largely limited by his hamstring, McGehee rotated several players into his striker position up top.

"We were going to need to platoon that space and I think Isaiah Manding was as close to a player of Kala's speed, at least," McGehee said.

Manding was in the right place at the right time. After Matas won a ball in the midfield, he found Manding making a run along the right wing. Manding took the ball down near the end line before sending a cross into the box for Choquette, who put away a one-timer with his left foot past Kalani goalkeeper Michael Stafford.

"One of the main things that I thought against Mike Stafford was if we can get him to move his feet a little bit, we might be able to beat him on the far post, because he was kind of unbeatable that year. I mean, if he had just basic shots, shot-stopping, he was really good at it, so Jarad got that close-range finish and we ended up defending that to the death," McGehee said of Choquette's 36th-minute goal.

It was one of just two shots on goal Mililani had all game.

Early on, Kalani nearly scored when a shot got by Trojans goalkeeper JP Carson, but Fonseca deflected it just before it crossed the end line to keep the match scoreless.

The Falcons registered six shots on goal in all, three times as many as Mililani did.

In the end the Trojans held on for the 1-0 win. Cunningham was selected as the tournament's most outstanding player — and later as All-Hawaii Defensive Player of the Year. He was joined on the all-tournament team by Choquette, Fonseca and Kuloloia.

"Jeron anchored the team well. He just stopped plays from happening and keeping the rest of the guys organized and we got the win," said McGehee, who was selected as OIA West Coach of the Year.

Cunningham, Judd, Matas and Kong were all selected to All-OIA West First Team, while Choquette received Second Team recognition.

"I think the boys, like I said, we were a band of brothers and it isn't for person gain or any of the accolades or whatever, it was all about what we did as a group and I think you look at the goal tallies and all that, yeah, one guy had a lot of goals, but then there was a bunch of guys that had a bunch more, so that tells me that the group itself was there as a team and not a bunch of individuals," McGehee noted.

And while he may have been in the stands and not on the bench beside McGehee that night, Yamamoto's fingerprints were all over the end result.

"Like I said, Jeff may not have been the head coach but he was there for me and the program," McGehee said. "It's always special, every team is special and it's just a tremendous feeling of accomplishment that you've done something with a bunch of guys, because I personally don't think they were the most gifted team, but they were definitely probably the most determined team that year, just by what they accomplished."

Reach Kalani Takase at [email protected].

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