Just because Jodi Lillie only scored one goal last season doesn’t mean it was a fluke.
Though it kind of was.
Lillie’s free kick late in the season at Dominican from 35 yards out ricocheted off the wall, coach Gene Okamura remembered, “and the ball went one way as the goal keeper went that way.”
Everything else about Lillie’s freshman season was legit. She, in effect, was a key cog in the wall.
The center fullback from Mililani, Oahu, quickly established herself as an all-star and bedrock of a Vulcans defense that allowed just 10 goals in 16 matches and helped spearhead a breakthrough 10-win season.
The only part of Lillie’s game that resembled that of an underclassmen was the way she deferred to her upperclassmen teammates.
“Last year, there were so many other people and they we’re older and I really didn’t have a leadership role,” she said. “I wasn’t comfortable talking as much compared to now. I think I need to be more verbal on and off the field. I’m definitely going to be talking more in the back.
“This is really new team, I want us to do really well this season because we did really well last season.”
With almost three full weeks of practice under their belts to learn new concepts, tactics and styles and to get to now each other, the Vulcans get the ball rolling with a four-match road trip that starts Saturday at Cal State Monterey.
The first question is simple: Who is going to score?
That’s not Lillie’s job.
The Vulcans lost their top six point-scorers – players who accounted for 18 of 23 goals in 2018 – but just because there was a mass exodus of 11 seniors doesn’t mean last season has to be a fluke.
“I think that the players that we picked up are going to help this team a lot, and they bring so many different things to the table,” said Lillie, her team’s only preseason all-Pacific West Conference selection. “We do have goal-scorers and people who can go at pace and take people on. I’m not worried about that.”
Okamura brought in 15 fresh faces, and of the nine transfers, five come from Division I. They brought game readiness with them. Last season, Okamura said he felt comfortable playing 15 to 16 players in a tight match, but he said the number has jumped to 20 as the new season approached.
“The overall depth is higher than it’s ever been,” said Okamura. He enters his fourth season as coach, but his time with the program dates several years before that.
Up top, the UHH will look new but Okamura doesn’t necessarily expect a drop in production.
Sophomore Brenna Rill played four matches for D-I Idaho last season, Crystal Sanchez is a junior transfer and freshman Nanea Wall, a Konawaena graduate, showed up at camp with the grit Okamura expected.
“I think (goal-scoring) is one of the areas where we’ve gotten better,” Okamura said. “Our forwards are going to do well for us.”
On paper, the heart of the defense is a team strength.
Lillie, senior center back Janelle Schwartz and senior goalkeeper Bailey Cahill represent three of the team’s five returning starters after each logged minutes galore. Cahill played every minute in the goal, posting a 0.60 goals against average in earning second-team all-PacWest, Lillie was just behind her in playing time, making first-team all-conference, and Schwartz started 15 times. Junior Jada Macairan returns after playing 14 matches.
Of the newcomers, sophomore right back Maisie Paulson, formerly of Jacksonville State, has become one of Lillie’s favorites.
It makes her wonder why the Vulcans were selected to finish in the middle of the pack by the conference coaches.
“At first, I was really surprised and really upset, why are being picked sixth?” Lillie said. “Coach Gene talked to us and he told us it’s better to be overlooked and underestimated by other teams so we can come and surprise them.”
There is experience in the midfield as well. Sophomore Brende Yoshizumi (one goal, two assists in 2018) and senior Valencia Brianna each started last season, Hedda Bjerklund is the leading returning goal-scorer with two, fifth-senior Sabrinna Scott, a Waiakea alum, could be in store for her busiest season and Piper Collado is coming off a promising freshman campaign.
Set to begin his second season as full-time women’s coach, Okamura looked relaxed in his office early this week, and he joked that he probably wouldn’t be smiling if he still had to worry about two programs as he did in 2016 and ‘17. It’s conforting that Paul Regrutto is tasked again with worrying about the men’s program.
Okamura can only hope his singular focus pays off again like it did last season.
“I just want (people) to know how much work our coaches put in and how good they are to us,” Lillie said.