UH water polo dives back into Big West play

UH senior Gabi Mantellato has 13 goals this season for the Rainbow Wahine. Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser
UH senior Gabi Mantellato has 13 goals this season for the Rainbow Wahine. Jamm Aquino/Star-Advertiser

Whether her players know it or not, Hawaii water polo coach Maureen Cole decided to ease up a bit in practice during a week off from competition.

After opening their first homestand of the season with a one-goal loss to No. 1 USC and a resounding win over No. 13 Indiana, the Rainbow Wahine had 10 days to prepare for a run of three matches against ranked opponents over the next three days.

While the Rainbow Wahine used the time to train, Cole said she toned down her practice plans from what she had originally laid out.

“The girls would laugh at me, but I think we lightened up a little bit last week,” Cole said. “Our season is longer than most other seasons and we want to be sharp and ready and fired up for the next month and a half for the home stretch.

“Last week was good to kind of buckle down a little bit … and back to work this week.”

The break ends Thursday when the eighth-ranked Rainbow Wahine (10-9, 1-1 Big West) face No. 12 UC Santa Barbara (14-7, 0-1) in their first conference home match at 6 p.m. at the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex.

UH then faces No. 3 UCLA (14-1) at 6 p.m. on Friday and close a five-game homestand at 1:15 p.m. Saturday against No. 12 San Diego State (13-9). (UCSB and SDSU are tied in this week’s Collegiate Water Polo Association poll.)

“It’s great preparation for us,” Cole said. “Our conference tournament is either two or three games, the same with the NCAA tournament. So it’ll probably be the most similar to the end of the season that we’ll have all year.”

Up first is a Big West matchup with UCSB, which hasn’t played since dropping its Big West opener at UC Davis on March 11.

UH dropped its conference opener at UC Irvine 8-7 on March 10 then bounced back with a 10-6 win at Long Beach State two days later. In their first home game of the season, the Wahine were tied with USC into the final 20 seconds before the Trojans escaped with a 9-8 win on March 17. UH rebounded to roll past Indiana 10-5.

“I think we have a lot of momentum,” Cole said. “I think the team is playing really well, just hope the two-week layoff isn’t too much so hopefully we can come out and be ready to compete again tomorrow.”

UH lost both meetings with UCSB last season, falling 7-5 in the regular season and 11-5 in the Big West tournament’s championship match.

“It’s always hard and a challenge to get a win in conference so we hope we can do that (Thursday) night. More importantly, we just want to continue to build off the momentum and keep getting better. … We just to keep improving ourselves so that the last week of April we’re playing he best water polo.”

Junior Chloe Barr leads UH with 33 goals and has scored in 16 of UH’s 19 matches. Sophomore Irene Gonzalez is next with 24 goals in 14 games and is coming off a hat trick against Indiana. Junior goalie Ymane Hage is averaging 7.18 saves per match.

It will be a reunion week of sorts for Cole. UCSB coach Serela Kay played alongside Cole at UCLA and served as associate head coach at UH for two seasons before taking over with the Gauchos in 2015.

On Friday, Cole will share the pool deck with UCLA coach and Punahou classmate Brandon Brooks, a former basketball and water polo standout with the Buffanblu. The two-time Olympian and 1999 HHSAA Hall of Honor inductee has led the Bruins to 11 straight wins over UH since 2011.