It'd be wise not to underestimate Owls
By Leila Wai
Advertiser Staff Writer
They don't like being called underdogs.
Yet going into nearly every game —at least in terms of history —that's the position the players on the Mid-Pacific boys soccer team were in.
Except they kept winning games, even against big-name teams like Punahou and Kamehameha.
The wins piled up, and at the end of the season, the unexpected happened.
The Owls —the lone Division II representative in the Interscholastic League of Ho-nolulu —were the overall champions.
"At first, coach was like, 'OK guys, here's our two goals: to win the ILH and win states.' And we were like, 'Yeah, good one coach,' " senior midfielder Kennedy Spencer said.
Consider that ILH schools 'Iolani, Punahou and Kamehameha have combined to win the past five state titles.
But MPI coach Jayson Abe knew he had something special going into the season. Most of it had to do with his 12-member senior class.
"This really is a special squad, with 12 seniors we've had since they were freshmen," said Abe, who called this a "once-in-a-long-while" achievement.
He would know.
Abe, an MPI alum and former player, said the highest his teams ever finished was fourth.
"Back then, we'd be happy just tying Punahou and 'Iolani. I remember losing to 'Iolani, 10-0," Abe said. "Things have definitely turned around.
"I always talk about my playing days with the boys, and it's changed dramatically. MPI is known as a baseball powerhouse. I think we only won three (soccer) games in the ILH (in a season)."
The Owls (9-2-1) are the top seed for the Hawai'i High School Athletic Association/JN Automotive Groups Boys Division II Soccer Championships. The eight-team Division II tournament begins tomorrow, with the championship game Saturday at 5 p.m. The 12-team Division I tournament starts today, with the championship Saturday at 7 p.m.
Winning the ILH breeds confidence, but an "embarrassing" loss in the state semifinals last year keeps the Owls humble and hungry for this year's state tournament.
"We kind of talked about that today, and we reminded them of what it felt like to lose to HPA in the semifinals," Abe said. "Just remember what it felt like to lose ... ending your season, knowing you were the better team. You have to be the better team consistently, day in and day out. We just have to be mentally prepared going into the state tournament."
This year's success had its beginnings years ago. The Owls won the inaugural state title in 2008, and started winning some games against the better Division I opponents in the ILH.
Senior forward Cody Sullivan knew the Owls had a chance "last year, when we were breaking barriers by beating Punahou and Kamehameha and 'Iolani (in the preseason)," he said. "I knew this year's team would be a lot better. We only had three graduating seniors (last year), so pretty much all of the starters were coming back."
Sullivan and Spencer shared the ILH scoring title with 13 goals each this year playing against an all-Division I schedule.
"It's good, because our school doesn't get recognized for a lot of things because we're a small school," Sullivan said. "It's good to be known for something."
The smallest player at this small school is 5-foot-2 senior midfielder Rex Meier, who epitomizes this squad.
"People underestimate me, I guess," said Meier, a tenacious defender who is not afraid to go in for the hard tackle. "It's to my advantage, because if I go in for a tackle, I get the foul, because I'm smaller."
It's a misconception the Owls have faced all season.
"Being DII gave us more need to win than the Punahous and the 'Iolanis," senior defender Brendan Wesley-Smith said. "They came in thinking they are supposed to win, but we weren't supposed to win, so we were battling adversity."
Abe said: "It's awesome to know they are confident in themselves that they can compete against the bigger and supposedly better schools."
But gaining respect requires consistency, and the loss of the 12 seniors is a concern to Abe, who has six juniors and four sophomores on his roster. Their junior varsity program only had 14 players.
And, he points out, it is a senior class not only 12 strong, but filled with soccer players and not merely athletes.
They are a group that competes fiercely on the field, and hangs out together off it. Most of the seniors gather "at gravel parking lot, in the corner by the tree," they explained. They bonded over a preseason trip to Hawai'i Prep Academy, bowling nights and parties at Meier's house.
"I think from the beginning, the first day we came out (this season) and we saw we had a lot of good players, and we have good team chemistry," Wesley-Smith said.