LAHAINA - Lahainaluna High School boys soccer head coach Sam Aki is a man who has spent the better part of his life as a mentor of the sport. He's coached, administered and officiated youth league games for over 26 years, and he now begins his 19th year at the high school level as the Lunas' leader - nine with the girls and ten and running with the boys.
A soft-spoken coach with an easygoing demeanor, Coach Sam, who is currently assisted by Robyn Rodriguez, Francisco Rodriguez and David Ramirez, has seen the changing landscape of the world's most popular game from a close up, sideline perspective here on the West Side. He's been an integral part of West Maui AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) for nearly three decades and watched youth soccer programs move up the charts in popularity.
That rise in attention has been fortified in recent years by the marked increase of the Hispanic population on Maui and their attachment to the sport. That involvement has grown as communication gaps have been closed, and the Hispanic youth movement has further blended into the West Side soccer demographic.
The team includes (from left): front — Jacob Opunui and Jonathan Pono Lolohea; middle row — Marcos Lopez, Yoxtan Zuleta, Jacob Ramirez, Blaine Casil, Mathew Ramirez, Keoni Miranda, Johnathan Cardenas, Radon Sinenci and Roberto Cardenas; back row — Jose Negrete, Erick Montiel, Andres Ramos, Kamal-Craig Golaube, Amateo Flores, Drew Austin, Emerson Liburd, Sergio Gallardo and Ani Bel.
Over the last five years or so, that movement has spread up to the high school program to the point where Aki sees the Lunas further closing the gap at the top of the Maui Interscholastic League standings with Kamehameha, Baldwin, and King Kekaulike.
"Last year, we finished in fourth place, separated by just five points from the top three," he explained from the Matrix turf field on campus that is undergoing the final construction stages for a tentative opening in the fall of this year.
"And this year we are sparked by the youthful attitude of the team - they have no fear of the other teams in the MIL. We're young with only four seniors on the roster, but the freshmen and sophomores are fearless and bring a lot of positive energy to the team. These guys are inexperienced in high school games but have been playing for years in the junior leagues."
Leading the way for the 2013 Lunas are team captains Keoni Miranda and Yoxtan Zuleta, along with Amateo Flores, Sergio Galardo, Roberto Cardenas and Marces Lopez on the front line, Andres Ramos and Blaine Casil playing the back line, and Pono Lolohea as goal keeper.
The Lunas began MIL play in early December. The regular season runs through Jan. 28 and will be followed by the Hawaii High School Athletic Association (HHSAA) state championship playoffs in February at the Waipio Soccer Peninsula on Oahu.
All of Lahainaluna's home games will be played at the Lahaina Recreation Center field until the athletic facility on campus is completed.
"We're thankful to the county Parks and Recreation Department for their work in keeping the field at the youth center in top shape for our games, and to Mark Tillman and Sky Delaney for their help with the team," Coach Sam concluded.