Hawaii water polo coach Maureen Cole knows better than to put much stock in UC Irvine’s record.
The Anteaters visit Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex on Saturday for the Big West opener at 4-8, next to last in the conference entering the week. But upon closer examination, all of UCI’s losses have come against teams ranked in the top seven of this week’s Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings — No. 1 Stanford, No. 2 USC, No. 3 UCLA (in overtime), No. 4 Cal (twice), No. 6 Arizona State (twice) and No. 7 Pacific (OT).
As such, poll voters have kept UCI — which has won at least a share of six of the last seven BWC regular-season championships — at No. 8 heading into Saturday’s 6 p.m. match with the fifth-ranked Rainbow Wahine (11-2).
“Their record means nothing and our record means nothing in a conference match,” Cole said. “They’ve played a lot of good teams early to put themselves in a great position.”
Both teams had ample opportunity to scout each other last week when UH visited Irvine for the Barbara Kalbus Invitational. The Wahine return to DKAC for their first home match since Jan. 21 coming off a 3-1 showing in the tournament, the lone loss a 9-8 defeat to UCLA. They bounced back to beat UOP and ASU to claim fifth place in the 16-team event.
“(The UCLA game) took a lot out of us,” Cole said. “It came down to the very last possession, we had a chance to tie it and had a good opportunity. So we easily could have given in to the fatigue or the disappointment. That’s one thing I’m really happy about at this point in the season, they’ve stepped up and they haven’t given in to those voices in the back of your head that can give you excuses. They’re hungry and they want to work for it.”
Cole has called this year’s team one of her most balanced in her seven years as head coach and four players have posted at least 21 goals with two more in double digits. Junior Irene Gonzalez enters the week as the Big West points leader with 53, ranking third in goals (32) and second in assists (21). She’s also tied for second in the conference with 24 steals.
“She is easily the most explosive player I’ve ever coached,” Cole said. “She goes from 0 to 100 so fast, she’s one of those players that can get up on the counterattack can create separation through drives. So she’s getting herself open, but at the same time teams have to focus on her and then she’s able to put the ball into 2-meters or make the extra pass and they’re able to finish.”
Freshman center Elyse Lemay-Lavoie, a spring-semester transfer and member of the Canadian national team, became eligible in the second week of the season and ranks second on the team with 23 goals.
Among Cole’s primary concerns entering the match will be handling UCI’s pressure.
“They’ve given Cal and some of the best teams in the country a problem moving the ball because they’re so physical and they press and they can have a tendency to tire teams out,” Cole said. “So we have to do a good job of continuing to move and draw exclusions. To keep the ball alive and move the ball is definitely the biggest key for us.”
Senior goalie Ymane Hage ranks second in the league with 88 saves and made a career-high 12 in a win over San Diego State last week.
UC Irvine is led by eighth-year coach Dan Klatt, who is 40-7 in Big West play and is closing in on 200 career victories.
Irene Gonzalez, 32
Elyse Lemay-Lavoie, 23
Femke Aan, 22
Maartje Keuning, 21
Chloe Barr, 18
Claire Nixon, 12
Carla Abellan, 13
Carmen Baringo, 18
Ymane Hage, 18
Molly DiLalla, 11