Soccer coach Skee Saplan was giving his first media interview in more than a year when a couple of players stopped by to show their appreciation and present him with a lei.
There were plenty to go around.
Flowers, balloons, banners, candy necklaces, proud parents — all the essentials of a celebratory high school send-off — were in great supply Saturday at Hilo Bayfront.
An ultra-competitive soccer match was nice, too.
“It felt like I was back in the place I was meant to be,” Keaau High’s Emily Turmelle said.
Once a group of 14 Big Islanders got caught up to speed playing together on their makeshift senior day, goal-scoring came in bunches. The 12th-graders came back to edge a group of Big Island 11th-graders 5-4.
“The first 10 minutes, we were getting used to each other,” Waiakea’s Maya Atwal said. “We’d kick the ball this way, and they’d run through it. We were just getting used to playing with each other, then once we started getting our passing going, talking and communicating, we really got to it.”
What if this group was able to get a slew of practices under it belt during “normal” circumstances?
“We would be competing for the state championship,” she said.
With the 2021 BIIF soccer season canceled by the pandemic, Saplan, the Hilo High’s girls coach, said he invited all the seniors on the island so players and parents could share “one last farewell.” He thanked the county and sponsors for helping to make it happen.
Many players are busy with the club soccer season, but this was Turmelle’s first match since her junior season.
“I was definitely nervous at first, of course, because I knew I was going to be rusty,” she said. “But I knew once I got back on the field and started actually playing and started to get a rhythm, I’d knew I’d start to get back in game mode.”
Atwal scored an equalizer in the first half, and Turmelle, Malia Brost (Hawaii Prep), Kahala Erskine (HPA) and Mohala Kalauli (Hilo) netted goals in the second half. Nanea Wong Yuen (Kamehameha), Kaitlin Beatty (Waiakea), Jayleen Andaya (Keaau) and Jazlin Menino (Hilo) found the back of the net for the juniors.
“It felt so good to be back out there,” Turmelle said. “It felt nostalgic in a way.”
Joining in the nostalgia were seven other 2020 all-BIIF selections: Alianna West (HPA), Bella Police (HPA), Tatiana Denis-McRight (Konawaena), Finesity Salinas-Gouviea (Konawaena), Riley Blaber (Kealakehe), Aaliyah Takata (Kealakehe) and Jacelyn Cambra (Waiakea). Elizabeth Evans (HPA) and Samantha Chung (Hilo) played as well.
“It was so fun, I got to meet all the other seniors,” Atwal said. “I haven’t really traveled with them, and I got to know them personally. They are amazing people and I got to find out where they are going to college, which was great.”
She is set to attend the University of San Diego. Atwal plays club soccer with Rush for coach Steven Cootey, and she credits Hawaii Youth Soccer Association play with helping to make up for all that was lost when the high school season was canceled. The Rush play a HYSA semifinal May 9 against Kona Crush.
“I was really excited for high school year and Jacelyn and I were hopefully going to be captains,” she said. “Playing with Rush has been really great, and coach (Cootey) has been great about giving us senior activities.”
Turmelle had hoped to use a final soccer high school season as a chance to get scouted. Her final seasons in BIIF volleyball and judo were thwarted as well.
“I’ve been playing (soccer) since I was 5, so it was always a dream to keep playing,” she said. “I think the bonds you make in team sports is what I missed most.”
Some of her next bonding experiences will come in the military. Turmelle has enlisted in the Army, and she sounded as if she had few regrets.
“I’m grateful for this (match), and, I’m happy where I am,” she said.