HIGH SCHOOL REPORT
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Leilehua striker Syd Tom and his teammates delivered an OIA West championship this year. The Mules played against Kapolei in the OIA semifinals last night. CLICK FOR LARGE
Leilehua's time has come
Mules striker Syd Tom is a striking player, according to his coaches and former teammates
FOR much of the past four years, Syd Tom has remained one of the best-kept secrets in local high school sports, and that's fine by him. The high-scoring senior is a throwback athlete who speaks softly and carries a big boot, leaving his actions to do his talking.
Tucked away in the sleepy central Oahu town of Wahiawa, Tom has quietly become one of the state's top soccer talents, scoring 49 goals during an illustrious career which has helped lead the resurgence of the Leilehua soccer program.
After decades as an afterthought at a school most renowned for its football program, the Mules soccer team has come into its own in recent years. Under the leadership of head coach Carl Friedl, the Mules have gone 29-11-4 over the past three seasons, including a spot in the Oahu Interscholastic Association championship match, and three consecutive state tournament appearances.
"I'm really not much of a talker," Tom said. "I'd rather just work hard and do what I can to help our team win and leave it at that. That's just the type of person I am."
As a freshman, Tom exploded for 12 goals in 10 matches to earn his first of three consecutive All-OIA West Division first-team honors. While Leilehua narrowly missed a spot in the state tournament that year, it would begin a run of success for the Mules and set the table for a 2005 season in which the team went 10-4-2 on their way to the OIA title match and a state tournament slot.
That year, Leilehua placed three players on the All-State first team -- Player of the Year Ryan Bibilone, Daniel Phelps and Tom, who netted a remarkable 17 goals as a sophomore.
Last season, with Bibilone off starring at Santa Rosa Junior College, Tom and Phelps sparked Leilehua to a 9-6-2 mark and another state tournament berth.
"Last year, I probably scored 14 or 15 goals or something like that, and Syd probably assisted me on 10 of them," said Phelps, who recently capped his freshman season at the University of Washington with an NCAA tournament appearance. "It was a luxury playing beside him up front, having someone of that talent next to me."
THIS SEASON, the Mules have truly become Tom's team. With opponents able to key their complete defensive focus on him, Tom has elevated his game to new heights, showcasing his exceptional playmaking skills. This season, 16 different Mules have scored, far and away the highest total among OIA schools.
"Almost everyone on our team has scored this season," Tom said. "Rather than having one person score 20 goals, why not have 20 different players score one goal. It's made us a lot better in that they can't just mark me because we have other people on this team who can score, too."
The result has been a more diverse attack and a 9-1-0 record and the program's first OIA West Division regular-season title in recent history. With an athletic defensive unit led by center back Jacob Sego, football star Bryant Moniz and goalkeeper Nick Popa, the Mules have allowed just eight goals in 10 matches and have already earned a spot in this year's state tournament.
"The thing about this team is that they are extremely unselfish, and that definitely includes Syd," said longtime Mules assistant coach JJ Cabralda. "Syd is very, very humble, and that is a reflection of the attitude of this entire team. Everybody wants to win as a team."
Tom echoed Cabralda's view.
"When someone on our team scores, that's all that matters," Tom said. "It's not that I scored or he scored, it's that 'we' scored. This year we have 11 seniors, many who have been here for the whole four years, so we're used to playing with each other and we all get along well and want to play for the same thing."
EVEN WITH HIS revamped game, Tom has retained his goal-scoring touch. With 10 goals this year, Tom has recorded double-digit goal totals each season. As he has during his entire career, the speedy striker has displayed a penchant for finding the net in big games.
Against OIA power Kapolei earlier this season, Tom registered a hat trick to account for all of his team's offense as Leilehua edged the Hurricanes 3-2.
Tom came up big again last week against rival Mililani in the OIA quarterfinals, scoring both goals as the Mules defeated a Trojan program that had captured the past five OIA championships, including eight of the last 10.
In that match, Tom made the most of the few opportunities he had, scoring both of his goals in the second half, despite being limited to only five touches. Leilehua defeated the Trojans in their regular-season game as well.
"I know that if I keep working hard during the game, the chances will come," Tom said. "It might not come in that game, but maybe I'll have the chance to create an opportunity for a teammate. Coach JJ tells us we need to improve our batting average on scoring opportunities, 'cause you don't get too many. We've been practicing finishing a lot in practice, and that's helped me focus and put away the opportunities I do have."
ON THE CLUB LEVEL, Tom and his Real Hawaii Soccer Club team have captured the past two state championships for their age level, advancing to regional tournaments in Aurora, Colo., and Boise, Idaho. Coached by Sean Richardson, the team's roster includes many of the state's top players, including all-star talents Will Jensen of Punahou, Keoki Haole and Curtis Kiyabu of Kapolei, and Kekoa Osorio of Kamehameha. Leilehua teammate Charlie Pregoner is also a member of the squad.
Tom's talents have earned him recognition on the national level, too, as he was selected for the U.S. Olympic Development Region IV pool this past summer.
With exposure from the national program and tournaments, Tom has captured the interest of several college teams, including UC Irvine, the University of San Francisco and Hawaii-Hilo.
"I am not surprised that Syd is getting opportunities to play at the next level," Phelps said. "He is always dangerous. He plays beautiful balls to feet and has outstanding field vision and he is a great finisher. As you move up the levels in soccer, creating time and space for yourself with the ball gets harder and harder. The great ones always make it seem as though they have a couple of extra seconds and find their way through traffic and finish, and Syd is doing that right now at a young age. I have no doubt that wherever he goes, he will have a huge impact."
"The way Syd moves through a crowd is amazing," said the former Punahou soccer standout who continued his career at the University of California. "He makes moves like he's playing a chess match, pushing the ball one way, reading the defenders, and then countering their move."
With Leilehua in the midst of the post-season and college soccer looming just over the horizon, Tom has left an indelible mark.
"The kid is so impressive in so many respects," Cabralda said. "Besides all of his obvious physical talents, he has so much humility and he is coachable. Syd just lets his actions speak for him. He has tremendous fire but he lets the game come to him. With all that Syd has accomplished, all the goals he's scored, he's never done so at any cost to the team. It has been a privilege to be associated with him for all these years."