For nearly two decades, the UH-Hilo men’s soccer team wasn’t competitive at all, running a 12-year losing streak and gaining ground on the baseball program’s national record for futility, a 26-year skid.
Under baseball coach Kallen Miyataki, who changed the culture and mindset, the Vulcans snapped that downward spiral in 2019.
In his fourth season, Paul Regrutto is trying to do the same thing. He’s not there yet, but slow progress is being made for a program with one winning season in 14 years.
No. 5 Azusa Pacific beat UHH 1-0 in a PacWest game Wednesday at the school’s baseball stadium, another temporary home until the campus field, with fingers crossed, is completed next year.
In 2018, UHH was no match for Azusa Pacific, which won easily 5-2 at Keaau High’s stadium, a period when the Vulcans had no home. The next year, the Vulcans lost again to the Cougars 3-2 in overtime on the road, progress but another losing season.
During the spring Covid shortened season, the Vuls finished 1-1-2 to snap a 10-year losing skid. That’s something they could rally around, and the optimism extended through the start of this year with a 3-2 overtime loss to No. 16 Seattle Pacific and a 3-2 win over Western Washington, another force in the GNAC.
On paper, the Cougars appeared to be overwhelming favorites. They were voted to three-peat for the conference title and landed eight players on the preseason team. The Vuls were picked 10th out of 11 teams and had zero players on the preseason team.
APU has James Ndubueze, a senior from Germany who was an All-American and led the PacWest with 18 goals in 2019. He scored 30 minutes in on a cross from David Kwinn, a second-team All-West Region pick. (The recognition ladder goes All-PacWest, All-West Region, and All-American.)
For the most part, the Vulcans made him look ordinary because they were glued to him, except for one short period when he scored. Though he was voted the preseason player of the year, he is far from flawless.
In the first half, he tried to chest trap the ball but it bounced too far away for a turnover. Ndubueze also kicked three shots over the crossbar. Here’s a tip for AYSO kids: If you kick it low at least there’s a chance for a rebound shot.
Here’s the good news for the Vulcans: Out of the eight players on the preseason team, six are seniors, including Ndubueze and Brendan Fix, the 2019 PacWest goalie of the year.
APU (5-1-1, 1-0 PacWest) outshot the Vulcans (2-3, 0-1), by a rather large margin, 12-5, including shots on goal, 4-1.
UHH won’t face anyone on its conference schedule with the caliber of talent like APU. So if the defenders do what they did Wednesday, which is mainly pressuring the ball, the Vulcans will be competitive and have a chance to add a rare winning season.
“I think we have a good team,” Regrutto said. “This is by far the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here. You have to win some games like this to feel legitimately like you’re there. We’re so far ahead of what we’ve been in the past. You keep giving that same speech every time, ‘You keep working this hard and you’ll get a reward.’ But his is one of those moments where you feel the program is moving in the right direction, and there’s a good chance you will do something special.”
Regrutto noted that it was team effort to somewhat neutralize Ndubueze, who had no long dribbling runs.
“We wanted to play as hard as we possibly can,” he said. “You can play teams like that and feel you’re not a good team. The disappointment here is the guys feel like they are a good team. We’re creating our chances, and against a team like that you don’t get any opportunities.
“What you have to look at is: How dangerous were they in the second half, how dangerous were we and did we put in a lot of effort to get back in the match? You’re looking at all these things and it’s all positives. We fought back, and there were multiple times when I said to myself, ‘We can get this game tied up, and if we get it tied up then we can win it.’ So that’s how I feel about it.”
Randi Macadangdang scored three minutes into the second half to lead the Cougars (6-2, 1-0) over the Vulcans (3-3, 0-1) 1-0.
UHH next plays Holy Names on Oct. 3 in Oakland, followed by the men’s game.