UH water polo hosts No. 1 USC in home debut

UH junior Chloe Barr leads the Rainbow Wahine with 29 goals and has scored in 15 of UH's 17 matches this season. Star-Advertiser photo
UH junior Chloe Barr leads the Rainbow Wahine with 29 goals and has scored in 15 of UH’s 17 matches this season. Star-Advertiser photo

Maureen Cole crafted the University of Hawaii water polo team’s 2017 schedule to test the Rainbow Wahine.

Sure, UH’s sixth-year head coach would have preferred to see a few close losses tilt the other way in a 9-8 season to date. But Cole remains focused on the benefits of learning through challenges.

“The way you get to become the best is to play the best consistently,” Cole said. “So we don’t have a fluff schedule, that’s for sure.”

After playing 17 games in California, the eighth-ranked Rainbow Wahine open their home schedule on Friday and will start right at the top of the national rankings by taking on No. 1 USC.

The 6 p.m matchup between the ’Bows and Trojans at Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex will be the third meeting between the teams this season with USC (20-0) winning the first two 13-8 on Jan. 22 and 12-5 on Feb. 25.

The Trojans set a national record on Thursday with their 47th consecutive victory, a 15-2 win over Indiana at DKAC.

“I think the girls will definitely be fired up to play at home for the first time,” Cole said, “and any time you have the opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country, one, two, three times, we can’t get enough. It’s a great opportunity for us to get better against the best. That’s the way to get better fastest.”

UH’s second loss to USC marked the start of a four-game losing streak, the last three by a single goal, including an 8-7 loss at No. 6 UC Irvine in their Big West opener last Friday.

UH rebounded with an 11-6 win at Long Beach State on Sunday to even the conference record before opening the home schedule.

“We’ve been right on the fringe in so many games and all those games were against great teams,” Cole said. “It’s good to have been in those sort of moments. Sometimes they work in your favor and unfortunately we’ve been on the bad side of it more times than not this season. But I think it’ll help us going into the big moments in the conference tournament, which is what all of this is leading up to.”

UH junior Chloe Barr, the Big West player of the year in 2015, has scored in all but two games this season and leads the ‘Bows with 29 goals in her return from a redshirt year.

“Chloe’s a natural leader,” Cole said. “She’s really smart with the ball, she’s our playmaker and she does a good job with that.”

Sophomore Femke Aan is next with 22 goals. Irene Gonzalez, UH’s leading scorer with 73 goals last season, was slowed by an injury early in the season, but has 21 goals, including four hat tricks.

Junior Claire Nixon (16 goals) and senior Gabi Mantellato (12) also returned from redshirt years to join a roster that returned largely intact after a 20-8 season.

“They’re all super competitive and it’s taken some time, as expected, to blend the old with the older,” Cole said. “There’s been some ups and downs along the way but I think that’s just going to make us that much better.

“It’s a strong team. We just have to put it together and have the big moments when it counts.”

UH’s five-game homestand continues at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against No. 15 Indiana, led by former UH associate coach Ryan Castle. Emily Carr, a member of UH’s 2015 Big West championship team, is Castle’s assistant coach with the Hoosiers.

“He knows us inside and out,” Cole said of facing Castle. “He knows me and our tendencies and our players’ tendencies. It’ll be a good opportunity to compete and see some old friends at the same time.”

UH faces No. 13 UC Santa Barbara on March 30 in its Big West home opener and take on No. 3 UCLA the following day. The homestand wraps up against San Diego State on April 1.