KULA - Just one season after Maui formed its first official league in futsal, an indoor variation of soccer, two young teams are gearing up to compete in this week's national championships.
The Po'okela Soccer Club - comprising athletes who also play outdoors for King Kekaulike High School and Kamehameha Maui - will contend in the under-15 girls division. They will be joined in Anaheim, Calif., by the Wailuku Bruisers in the under-12 boys division.
A third Valley Isle club - Maui Elite - qualified in the under-14 boys division, but will not make the trip.
Tanitia Imonti tries to get past Tiare Matsuura during a Po‘okela Soccer Club futsal practice last month at the Kula Gym.
TRAVIS KAYA photo
All teams clinched their national berths at the state tournament held on Maui in March.
The U.S. Futsal national championships begin Thursday and run through Sunday. The tournament, in its 27th year, will have Hawaii teams for the first time.
"We're going up as rookies," said Bruisers coach Kane Coyle. "But I have high expectations, and I look forward to see what's going on there."
Informal indoor soccer clubs have been around on Maui before, but a sanctioned futsal league was not started until last year.
Futsal is the only variety of indoor soccer sanctioned by global authority FIFA, which has organized the futsal World Cup since 1989.
"This is all over the Mainland," said Po'okela coach Carl Musto. "It's huge over there."
Futsal - from the Spanish for "hall football" - is played on indoor pitches slightly bigger than a standard basketball court. While the game takes its cues from traditional soccer, a number of key adaptations accommodate the smaller playing area.
Teams are made up of just five players, compared to 11 in soccer. The ball is slightly smaller and has less bounce than the standard soccer ball.
For futsalers used to playing outdoors, the new dimensions mean much faster and more physically demanding play.
"You always have to be moving," said Po'okela's Noelani Reyes, a 15-year-old Ka-mehameha Maui soccer player. "It's way harder than outdoor."
Just as the players' soccer experience has given them a leg up on the futsal court, training indoors has boosted their outdoor game.
"It has helped tremendously with their individual skills," Coyle said. "Because it's much faster and the space is more confined, it makes the boys think a lot quicker. If you're going to play this game at the top end, you're going to have to think faster than anything else."
For both clubs, a key to success has been the chemistry among teammates, many of whom grew up playing in Maui youth soccer leagues.
"We were playing together longer than the others," said Kenya Sherman, a King Ke-kaulike sophomore-to-be. "We know each other's strengths and weaknesses."
The players are not relying on familiarity and their outdoor experience alone, of course - they have also been training in anticipation of their first showing at nationals.
"We don't know what to expect," Sherman said. "So we really have to be prepared."
At the end of the league's first season, coaches are optimistic about futsal's future in the islands, both as a soccer supplement and a primary sport.
"Futsal has a place on its own in the rest of the soccer community," Coyle said. "The fact that it's starting now in Hawaii, I believe there are some great things that can be expected from it."