KAILUA-KONA — As Kona Crush Soccer Academy Director of Coaching Vinny La Porta puts it, soccer is a dynamic game, and everything can change in an instant.
The progression of making the Big Island a powerhouse for homegrown talent has been a more gradual process than simply scoring on a set piece. But La Porta and his Kona Crush crew took a huge stride last month, with the club’s under-18 boys team qualifying for the US Youth Soccer Region IV (West) Championships by recording a runner-up finish at the Hawaii State Cup.
The important kicker: there were no outer-island ringers on the roster. Everyone on the team calls the Big Island home and have come up with the Crush. According to La Porta, it’s the first time a team made up of exclusively local players has managed to qualify for the regional championships.
“Many people say we are too isolated and there are too many hurdles when developing players in a small community. But we focus on what we have here and develop it,” said La Porta, who has spent five years in his role with KCSA. “I hear all the time that there isn’t enough competition, but that’s clearly incorrect. Small communities can create great players. It’s the environment at training that makes players, not the population of the district.”
The regional tournament, which will take place from June 18-24, is part of the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series, the country’s oldest and most prestigious national youth soccer tournament. The games will take place at the Waipio Peninsula Soccer Complex on Oahu, with the winners advance to the big show in Frisco, Texas in July.
The tournament will attract more than 220 boys and girls teams from the region, which includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Hawaii.
It will also bring the eyes of college coaches and scouts looking for talent that can play at the next level.
“These big tournaments are vital in our player’s journeys and their development,” La Porta said. “What’s most important to me is that the players go to Oahu and showcase their skilled version of the game. Their soccer IQs will be on display and I want them to connect well with each other, read the elements of the game, and put on a display that shows these visiting states that Big Island can play.”
The team was made up of: Brendan Moynahan, Kento Komatsu, Riley Patterson, Maiki Kawakami, Tage Boyette, Sihkea Jim, Stormer Horton, Teddy Rubenstein, Toby Balaam, Bryson Guanio, Jake Schneider, Gabe Frazier-Jenkins, Jonathan Berg, Kai Biegler, Sam Frazier-Jenkins, Cristian Cedillos, Eima Kozakai, Chris Chock, Iwi Pilayo and Riley Hiatt.
The roster is very much a who’s who of high school soccer on the island, including multiple members from Hawaii Preparatory Academy’s program, which has reeled off three straight state titles — a pair in Division II and most recently a share of the D-I title after the state championship against Baldwin was called off due to lightning.
Former Hawaii Prep boys coach Richard Braithwaite has had a front row seat to seeing the shift in soccer culture and the increase in talent on the island. He can remember having just two kids who were playing club soccer during his first year at the helm in Waimea. Last year, 22 of his Ka Makani players were playing in the Crush program.
“It has been one of the primary reasons for our success the last few years. They play year-round with excellent coaching,” said Braithwaite, a soccer junkie himself who will be moving to Africa in the coming weeks. “I didn’t have to teach the game of soccer anymore. They knew that. When it came to the high school season, it was more about organization.”
When Hawaii Prep graduated Braden Kojima and Austin Schneider in 2017 — Crush players who would both go on to play at the college level — Braithwaite said he felt the process come full-circle. Soccer became more than a game and transformed into a lifestyle. Players were yearning to absorb as much about the game as possible.
”When I see them at school, they are talking soccer,” he said. “They are talking about games they saw on TV, sometimes games that are on at like 2 a.m. It’s just the thing now. They are wanting to take it all in.”
With the love of the game ingrained, the next step is for the Big Island athletes to garner as much experience as possible playing against top competition. That’s where events like the upcoming regional tournament come into play.
“Experience is the key. If I could sell experience, bottle it up like an elixir, I’d be a millionaire,” La Porta said. “In the end these players want to play in college, so they must be experienced playing against mainland players and teams. Without events like this, the players wouldn’t have a history of success in their memories against mainland players. Without a history of success in their minds, they will be apprehensive when battling a mainland player for a college roster spot.”
The Kona Crush Soccer Academy currently works with 180 players of all levels and ages, with 18 coaches working with the teams. And while the club’s success has been great, La Porta said the club’s motto is, “creating greatness in character, then sport.”
If they accomplish that, it will be more valuable than any trophy.
“The kids win because they gain confidence in themselves. They learn how to cope with pressures. They learn how to talk to each other and be a good teammate,” La Porta said. “This character development is a bumpy road, especially at the younger ages, but the roads are not blocked, they are just bumpy. And those that get through the bumps learn tremendous life lessons. Regardless of score, regardless of the standings, the true victory is human development.”
KCSA is holding open tryouts in June. Fore more information visit konacrushacademy.com. Anyone wanting to coach, volunteer, or donate, inquire directly with La Porta at konacrushDOC@gmail.com.
Kona Crush players who earned opportunities beyond the Big Island
Matthew Castro, Samoa National Team
Braden Kojima, Pacific University
*Laukoa Santos, San Diego State U, Albion Pros, NPSL Semi-Pro
*Finn Simmersbach, San Diego State University
Jon Takahashi, UH-Hilo
Travis Cotton, Cape Fear CC
*Austin Schneider, San Jose State U, SF Glens, PDL Semi-Pro
*Kalei Tolentino-Perry, San Jose State University
*Michael Scott, Colorado State University Pueblo
Hunter Olaso, Webster University, All-Conference 1st team Freshman year
Iwi Pilayo, Pacific University
Kento Komatsu, Chapman University
*Esai Easley, Grand Canyon University
*Akari Shimizu, University of California Riverside, USSF U18 Women’s National Team
*Sihea Jim, Colorado School of Mines (current junior at HPA, already committed)
Aiden Alcos, Azusa Pacific University
*Bri Vallente, Cal State East Bay, Peninsula College
Kiana Fudala, Treasure Valley Community College
Yuki Lavoie, Peninsula College
* On scholarship