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Catch her if you can

Hawaii soccer striker Mari Punzal has a lot of herky-jerky to her game -- and that's a good thing as she adapts to her new position

By Brian McInnis

LAST UPDATED: 2:43 a.m. HST, Sep 16, 2010

It's a game within a game for Mari Punzal.

How else to explain those spontaneous, seemingly random reversals of direction with the ball that often leave opponents bewildered in the dust of the Hawaii soccer co-captain?

"I notice when we watch on replays, I'm kind of like a jerky player," Punzal said when prompted about her style. "I don't know. In my head it's always this game of 'try to catch me' I guess."

She repeated it as fast as one of her trademark jukes: "Try to catch me, try to catch me. It's tag."

It's been a different sort of game so far this season for Punzal, who has excelled as a midfielder for pretty much her entire soccer career -- including when she was the consensus state player of the year as a Kamehameha senior in 2007.


At Waipio Peninsula Soccer Stadium
» Tomorrow: Washington State (2-6) vs. Hawaii (2-5), 7 p.m.
» Saturday: Washington State vs. Pepperdine (4-2-1), 7 p.m.
» Sunday: Hawaii vs. Pepperdine, 5 p.m. (KFVE)
Because of the needs of his young team, UH coach Pinsoom Tenzing has the 5-foot-6 Punzal playing at forward in her final season for the Rainbow Wahine.

Entering this weekend's Outrigger Hotels and Resorts Soccer Classic, she is tied for fifth among Western Athletic Conference players with three goals.

Midfield is where Punzal has the most freedom to freelance with the ball, so she's often had to give up that part of her game when she's dashing upfield as a striker.

"It's a difficult transition to make," Tenzing acknowledged. "There's a different mind-set in being a midfielder as opposed to an attacker. And her personality is suited to being a facilitator. We're struggling for offensive players, so we're almost forcing her to play in a position she's not really, really comfortable. But she'll do what we ask her to do."

Not that the Kapaa, Kauai, native has completely yielded her roots near the center stripe. She still mixes it up with opponents there with headers, physical play and her ability to trap and dribble the ball in traffic. Tenzing said she finds her way back there "with an internal compass."

And he hasn't committed her upfield permanently; he is still hoping an underclassman or two will emerge to free her up, ideally by the time WAC play starts next month. Until that time, it falls largely upon Punzal -- an All-WAC first-teamer at midfield the last two years -- to adjust and find the net.

Her life has been a study in adaptability. She had to grow up fast in moving from Kauai to the Kapalama campus for high school on Oahu, which she now considers home. And the self-described "tomboy," who followed her two older brothers around and wore Ninja Turtles T-shirts as a child, will soon be in nursing school, once the all-academic player completes her undergrad degree in family resources.

So breaking out of her comfort zone on the soccer field should be doable, right?

Eventually, maybe. These things take time.

"You know when forwards see themselves as the goal scorers? I don't really see myself as the goal scorer," Punzal said. "I still see myself as like, just run. Run, get the ball. It's always been my role. Not so much to score the goals, but just to get it back.

"Most definitely, our coaches have been challenging me a lot to take people on, get more shots, not just purposeless shots, but shots on goal, shots on frame. Aiming exactly where I want to shoot it. It's been a challenge for me, but I'm excited (for the rest of the season)."

UH (2-5) has consistently outshot its foes this season, but has seldom seen that pay off with victories, which has led to some dips in morale. Especially when UH lost 8-1 at nationally ranked California on Sept. 5.

As one of just three seniors who has played at UH for her entire college career, the upbeat Punzal knows it's up to her to speak up and provide leadership. Tenzing wants her to be, well, not so nice when she does it.

"She is the nicest individual I've ever met in my life," the coach said. "And she leads by example. And her examples are always hard to follow, because she's so athletic. She doesn't have an unkind word to say to anybody. That is something we've been struggling with. Because we need somebody to" -- he paused -- "lay the line."

Sophomore Skye Shimabukuro is one of two players who has split time in the striker spot opposite Punzal. She respects that the senior is basically taking one for the team, yet can still be effective in a foreign spot.

"She's a workhorse. She always does more than her part, which is really helpful for any team," Shimabukuro said. "Mari is an all-around player. ... And it doesn't matter what position she is supposed to be. Because any position she goes to, she does well, and I actually am learning from her, even though that's not her position."

Not yet, anyway.

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