Looking back: Dragons, Canefire face off in instant soccer classic

  • Sage Johnson, right, was a transcendent athlete for Honokaa soccer and football. (West Hawaii Today/File Photo)

Tired of watching classic games from yesteryear on TV in lieu of the real thing?

Let’s change things up, a tad, by looking back at some of the most memorable Big Island sporting events that your’s truly has been privileged enough to cover during the past 10-plus years.

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Disclaimer: This trip down memory lane will be inherently unfair to basketball, a sport in which my colleagues, here and at West Hawaii Today, have handled the bulk of the reporting.

We’ll start at the beginning and move forward with one selection a year.

Don’t like this idea? I blame COVID-19.

Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010: Christian Liberty-Honokaa boys soccer

Just like Josh Robinson’s game-winning cross a few moments earlier, I moved left to right at Kamehameha’s Paiea Stadium to find Sage Johnson — in the middle of the Dragons’ on-field celebratory mob.

Unlike Robinson’s no-look pass, I probably didn’t move as gracefully or as precisely, but Johnson was an easy target because everyone was congratulating him.

Johnson’s second goal, a header as he was going to his knees in double overtime, gave the Dragons a 2-1 win in the BIIF Division II championship match against Christian Liberty. When Johnson was asked if he could answer a few questions, a teammate cut in and said, “You can ask him a lot of questions.”

Yes, the senior liked to talk, but he walked the walk.

“Josh made a nice run on the side,” Johnson said after the game. “We’ve been practicing all week with that change of putting Josh up top. He put in a beautiful ball. He put it in nice and hard, nice and low like I like it; it went in.”

Let’s backtrack a bit.

Johnson was the man of the hour, but that honor just as well could have gone to the Canefire’s Richard Moylan.

Asked on Wednesday what he remembered most about a match contested more than a decade ago, Canefire coach Troy Rimel didn’t pause for long: “Those pads on the goals.”

Let’s backtrack even more.

Those padded Paiea goals are long gone, but Rimel said the team was watching a match at Kamehameha prior to the D-II final when Moylan said, “Those pads are going to cost someone a goal.”

As luck would have it, early on in the final Moylan dissected Honokaa’s defense and took a shot in front of goalkeeper Maikai Coelho that went off the padded post, which Rimel said provided an untrue bounce.

“I wish we would have had that goal in the beginning of the game that went off those stupid pads,” Rimel said. “I think it would gone in (with metal posts), but it came back out. But from what I understand, it’s in the rule book.”

Honokaa coach Maurice Miranda didn’t remember the padded goals, but he sure remembers Moylan being a nightmare to mark.

“What a player,” Miranda said.

Johnson would take home BIIF West Division player of the year, while Moylan claimed the eastside honor.

This was back when all four BIIF title matches were contested on the same day, and 2OT was a feature, not a bug. Makua Lani’s boys beat Kamehameha in the boys D-II third-place match in 20T to start the quintuple-header, and the action never let up. Hawaii Prep beat Honokaa 1-0 in the girls D-II final, Kealakehe shocked Hilo 2-1 in 2OT for a threepeat in boys D-I, and in the nightcap Hilo topped Waiakea 1-0 for a girls D-I repeat.

The Canefire-Dragons match was the second of the day, and it didn’t take a backseat to any of the others.

“I remember we scored both goals (in regulation), one of them for us and the second one for them,” said Miranda, referring to Jeremy Grotenhuis’ tying goal for Christian Liberty early in the second half, a play that began with a corner kick that glanced off a Honokaa player.

“We had some really good battles with (Christian Liberty) over a four- or five-year period,” he said. “You couldn’t blink.”

This one just happened to end in what seemed like a blink: pass, pop, celebration.

“I think our fans were more nervous than we were,” Miranda said. “These kids, you can see, when they need to go deep, they go deep.

“And they reach down and find something else inside of them. They played like true champions.”

Honokaa and Miranda would get used to that winning feeling.

Johnson scored 30 goals that season — more than a third of them on headers — as he spearheaded the Dragons to a runner-up finish at the state tournament. He was also a BIIF player of the year in football, quarterbacking Honokaa to a memorable Division I football championship in 2009

“He was a coach on the field,” Miranda said.

In 2011 and ‘12, Honokaa didn’t just win BIIF titles, the soccer team gave the school its first state championships.

Unfortunately, Rimel and the Canefire would get used to that near-winning feeling.

The small school in Keaau — roughly half the boys in the high school played on the soccer team — enjoyed two strong “soccer generations,” Rimel said. It would go on to finish BIIF finish runner-up three more times, including one-goal losses to Konawaena (2013) and Hawaii Prep (2014) when the Canefire again looked primed to bag their first title.

For whatever reason — missed opportunities, ill-timed trips, unlucky bounces, nagging injuries — Christian Liberty couldn’t break through, and it hasn’t fielded a contender since.

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“I might have changed the lineup more,” Rimel said. “But the kids gave it their all, and those games were a lot of fun.

“That (2010) match was incredible.”

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