Waiting is the hardest part: Vuls women’s soccer put high aspirations on hold for now

  • UH-Hilo women's soccer coach Gene Okamura anticipated a strong group for 2020.

  • When UH-Hilo women’s soccer team takes the field again, coach Gene Okamura hopes he has 10 players at his disposal who played in all 17 of the Vulcans’ matches in 2019, including senior fullback Camille Strazzo. (University of Hawaii-Hilo Athletic Department/Courtesy Photo)

It’s conceivable there are a few college coaches around the country who don’t consider their lost seasons much of a loss at all.

Maybe the postponements and cancellations caused by COVID-19 provided some sense of relief, helping them avoid what would have been a trying season? Maybe it bought them a little time? That undesirable group of upperclassmen you were hoping to magically make disappear and build over? They’re not your problem anymore.

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Thanks, pandemic.

Those coaches are probably out there, however quiet they may be — but do not count Gene Okamura of UH-Hilo women’s soccer among the group. He was looking forward to a season more in line with 2018 (the Vulcans went 10-4-2) than last season (6-7-4). There is no question that 2020 (0-0) is a downer.

“Disappointed,” Okamura said, “because the girls I had coming back and the players we had coming in were going to create a really great group, for sure.”

In mid-June, it was palpable in his voice. Okamura spoke optimistically about his roster but cautiously about the season, and 10 weeks later in another interview – though he supported the PacWest’s July decision to postpone fall sports until 2021 – the word of the day was “tough.”

Tough to take.

The Vuls haven’t practiced since just before spring break, but, “We were preparing to have a season for the last three or four months,” Okamura said. “We sent out a summer packet for them to work out and prepare and it seemed like the whole group was following along and excited.”

Tough to plan ahead.

He’s anticipating some form of workouts happening in October, but at best those will include roughly half his roster since only 17 of 30 players, including a walk-on, are in Hilo for the fall semester.

Ostensibly, any extra time can be used to find a new goalkeeper between sophomores Taylor Hornburg and Viviana Poli after Bailey Cahill ended a solid two-year run as UHH’s keeper.

“I’m assuming (fall) training will look like our spring segment usually does,” Okamura said.

Due back are an experienced junior-laden core of 10 players who saw the pitch in every match last season. The team’s top seven scorers return, including standout junior fullback Jodi Lillie, sophomore Nanea Wall (five goals) and junior Brenna Rill (four goals). Senior Crystal Sanchez and junior Brende Yoshizumi were among the key playmakers in the midfield last season, senior fullback Camille Strazzo started all 17 matches and, like Rill, junior Maisie Paulson is a transfer from Division I and ended up fourth on the team in minutes played in her first season in Hilo.

Poli, a Division II transfer from Biola, is a part of a 12-member recruiting class that Okamura thinks could be his best yet.

“Our junior class is pretty loaded, but my worry is Brenna is technically a junior, but I think she is going to be graduating this coming year, so that’s the tough part,” Okamura said. “So if she graduates, I’m not going to have her again (in the fall), and if there is no (spring) season, I’m really not going to have her again.

“If the junior class ends up graduating, and I don’t have them, that’s going to be a tough one.”

The unknown also landscape makes it a tough environment in which to recruit.

Okamura doesn’t know if his 2021 roster will include Rill, and it’s possible seven seniors could try to take advantage of another year of eligibility even if there is a shortened spring season.

“We plan our budget for what seniors are going to graduate,” Okamura said, “and that aspect is making it very tough to really know what our positional needs are and what kind of scholarship money we’ll have available. There is so much going on, I don’t what’s going on with a lot of them.”

That uncertainty holds true for high school seniors as well.

“A lot are still emailing and reaching out, but a lot of them haven’t played a match in five months,” he said.

He has been able to scratch the soccer itch in one respect.

Okamura is a club coach for Rush Big Island, so he’s been on the sidelines the past five weekends for the Hawaii Youth Soccer Association’s return, while following a slew of virus-related guidelines.

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“For the kids’ sake, I think it’s been fantastic for them to play,” he said. “I didn’t run a training session or coach a game in how long before we started again?

“For me, it’s been good to be out there, and for the players it must feel great. I hope it continues.”

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