A veteran University of Hawaii water polo team opens a new season on Saturday under a rather unfamiliar circumstance — at home.
For the first time since 2000, the program’s third year of existence, the Rainbow Wahine will begin a season in their own pool when they host the four-team Rainbow Invite this weekend at Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex.
“Weird, but exciting,” seventh-year UH coach Maureen Cole said of opening at home. “We’ve always gotta fly across the Pacific before we even play our first game. To not have that travel … we hope that just keeps us a little healthier.”
The Wahine enter the season ranked sixth in the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s top 25 and open against No. 4 California at noon on Saturday and face No. 22 Loyola Marymount at 6 p.m. UH closes the weekend against No. 23 Marist on Sunday at 10:15 a.m.
UH hasn’t played a home game before March since 2007 and typically opened the season with a tournament in California. But Cole wanted to take a trip off the schedule, “so I just kind of convinced three teams to come to Hawaii instead.”
“It wasn’t too tough a sell. Hopefully the weather holds up and they’re stoked to be here,” she said.
UH welcomes the visitors to Manoa with a roster featuring six of its top eight scorers off last year’s 15-11 team. Senior Chloe Barr led the Wahine with 45 goals last season, followed by junior Irene Gonzalez with 40. Both were first-team All-Big West selections with Barr named a third-team All-American and Gonzalez an honorable mention pick.
UH also returns junior Femke Aan (29 goals), senior Claire Nixon (27), sophomore Maartje Keuning (23) and junior Carla Abellan (14).
The two missing from UH’s top eight scorers of last season are centers Nikki-Marie Bell (30) and Gabi Mantellato (15), who completed their college careers in the spring. UH reloaded at the position with the signing of mid-year signee Elyse Lemay-Lavoie, a member of Canada’s national team.
“Nothing to take anything away from those two, but she’s strong,” Cole said. “She’s probably the best center we’ve had in a long time.”
Lemay-Lavoie helped Canada’s senior national team place fourth in the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary and won a silver at the World League Super Final in China. She led all scorers with 28 goals at last year’s World University Games.
“She’s gotta learn our systems and things are definitely different, so there’s some adjustment there,” Cole said. “But from what I’ve seen so far, she picks things up quickly and she doesn’t have the freshman body where it’s the first time in the weight room and she’s gotta adapt to the training. She’s more like an upperclassmen in that way.”
Senior goalie Ymane Hage also played for Canada’s national team in the world championships and World University Games. She suffered hip injury in the fall then caught a case of mumps. But Cole said she’ll be ready for this weekend’s matches.
The returning production contributed to UH’s national ranking — highest among Big West teams — and figures to create dilemmas for defenses in covering the array of Wahine weapons.
But Cole’s focus entering the Wahine opener has been maintaining their structure on defense.
“The trickiness for us is we do have weapons, so we have to make sure we’re all on the same page and we’re playing together and we’re working for one thing,” Cole said. “because if you over-commit on offense and you’re not coming back organized on defense that creates problems on the other end. So I think for us it’s making sure we’re attacking but we’re attacking smart.
“One of our goals his year is to win the turnover-to-goal ratio and sometimes last year we’d turn the ball over and the other team gets an easy counterattack. We want to be on the positive end of that one stat and I think that in close games will go a long way for us.”
UH went 15-11 last season with five losses decided by a single goal, including a 9-8 loss at home to No. 1 USC and an 8-7 defeat to Long Beach State in the semifinals of the Big West tournament. The Wahine closed the season with a 10-9 win over UC Davis in the conference third-place match.
Barr, Nixon, Hage and senior Erika Pauley are the only remaining members of the 2015 team that captured the Big West championship and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
“The senior group knows what it’s like and we want to get another one and have that taste again,” Cole said. “That’s definite the goal for the season, to win that conference championship at the end of the year.”
The first of UH’s seven home games this season will pose one of the biggest tests for the Wahine. Cal was voted second in the preseason MPSF poll behind defending national champion Stanford. Senior attacker Dora Antal is first three-time first-team All-American in program history having scored 75, 69 and 53 goals the last three years.
“They’re going to be tough. They’re super deep and super talented,” Cole said. “I think they’re definitely No. 1 or 2 in the country talent wise. It’ll be a very good test early. It should be good for us.”