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Time at UH has flown by for Mata‘afa

Rainbow Connection: Lahainaluna grad having fun doing what she loves with NCAA tourney-bound Rainbow Wahine

University of Hawaii center Lalelei Mata‘afa jumps into the pool in celebration of the Rainbow Wahine’s 9-8 victory over UC Irvine in the Big West tournament championship match Sunday in San Diego. Mata‘afa, a graduate of Lahainaluna High School, leads UH into an NCAA tournament quarterfinal against UCLA next Friday in Los Angeles. — DERRICK TUSKAN photo

Rainbow Connection is a special series highlighting former MIL student-athletes who are now competing for the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Stories will run periodically this spring in The Maui News.

Time flies when you play for the University of Hawaii women’s water polo team, an “amazing experience” that Lalelei Mata’afa said she wouldn’t trade for anything.

The Lahainaluna High School graduate is nearing the end of her fifth season as a redshirt junior center for the Rainbow Wahine, a team that just captured its second consecutive Big West championship with a 9-8 win over UC Irvine in the conference tournament final last weekend.

“It’s just been amazing, like each year had its own group of girls, but together we’re just an ohana,” Mata’afa said Thursday morning via phone from Oahu. “I wouldn’t want to be on any other team. We just have such a great connection and then we’re always there for each other, keep each other accountable in and out of the pool, and it’s just a great experience to share my years here with this group of girls.”

While competing in the Maui Interscholastic League, Mata’afa helped the Lunas win three consecutive league championships. The two-time MIL water polo Player of the Year was also a four-time Hawaii High School Athletic Association state wrestling champion and 2016 HHSAA Hall of Honor inductee.

Lalelei Mata‘afa is the “exact type of person you want to coach,” says UH coach Maureen Cole. “She does her best all the time and she has great energy. … It’s just positive energy and she gives her best and obviously she’s a really special athlete with a ton of talent.” — UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII ATHLETICS photo

“I can’t even believe I’m in my fifth year now in college, I feel like a couple months ago I was a freshman,” she said. “Time does fly when you’re having fun and doing what you love.”

UH coach Maureen Cole said that Mata’afa is the “exact type of person you want to coach.”

“She does her best all the time and she has great energy. In five years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say something negative about her teammates, about the hard, grueling workouts,” Cole said. “It’s just positive energy and she gives her best and obviously she’s a really special athlete with a ton of talent.”

Mata’afa redshirted her freshman year with the Rainbow Wahine in 2017. In her first collegiate season the following year, she appeared in 19 games and scored 12 goals.

By 2019, she had a .531 shooting percentage, scoring 17 goals and adding one assist among her 16 game appearances. During the 2020 season that was cut short due to COVID-19, Mata’afa had scored the second-most goals on the team and had a career-high five goals during a win over Azusa Pacific.

This year she has 12 goals and an assist in 10 games, shooting .545.

“It’s just been fun to watch her improve so much from year to year,” Cole said. “She’s just a tremendous athlete and she just improves with every game.”

And considering the lost playing time due to COVID-19, Cole added that “I can’t even imagine if she had last year’s full season and this year’s full season with training, she’d be even better because she just hasn’t plateaued.”

Cole talked about how Mata’afa has worked to improve her tactical understanding of the game and how to better hold the center position, which has “really helped our team.”

“I think it’s the hardest position to learn, it takes the longest,” Cole said. “It’s also our great defenders that she goes up against– we have the best defender in the country on our team, so it doesn’t get harder than the person she battles every day at practice.”

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a major setback for student-athletes worldwide, turning into months without organized team practices and competition, Mata’afa stayed motivated so that she could be ready for when the ‘Bows would need her.

“There’s always uncertainty with this pandemic, you know, but I just kept my goals focused and I had hope, so I was always being optimistic that we would have a season,” Mata’afa said. “We stayed in contact as a team, like we had Zoom calls. I talked to my teammates a lot and we’re just very motivated to get back to where we were, and obviously, nine months off is a very long time, but I feel like that was driving us even more to do even better when we had the chance to get back into the pool, if we had the chance.”

UH didn’t start up practice again until January and only played 12 regular-season games. The team also lost two players who chose to opt out, including Baldwin graduate Rebecca Buenrostro-Gallimore.

Despite these obstacles, Cole said the goal is “just to get better and develop as a team.”

“Even though we are really thin with girls who have opted out, and some girls that have left because of COVID, I think that our strength is that we are small,” she said. “So our ability to get to know one another and get better has increased because they’re with the same girls all the time. I’m just proud of how we’ve progressed.”

With UH crowned the Big West champion — Mata’afa scored the game-winning goal in the championship game — the Rainbow Wahine (11-1) are now set to travel to Los Angeles on Monday in preparation for their match against third-seeded UCLA (13-4) at 3 p.m. Hawaii time on Friday in the NCAA tournament.

The Bruins have won seven national titles and last made the national final in 2017.

“We love that matchup, we love a good challenge,” Mata’afa said. “We’re very optimistic and we’re very excited for the opportunity because we’ve always been the underdog in a sense, you know, so we’re excited to show what we’re capable of against UCLA and anyone else we match up against.”

Due to COVID-19, Mata’afa is eligible for another year with the Rainbow Wahine. From freshman year to now, Mata’afa learned not only how to adapt to any setbacks but also to remain open to feedback.

“I think as a student-athlete, the best quality to have is being coachable,” she said. “I knew what I was capable of, and to have the ability to listen to your coach– they’re just trying to help you– so I know that I have certain skills that allow me to do what I do, but being able to listen and take in information and really make those adjustments, it really helps.”

Once she graduates from UH Manoa with her sociology degree, Mata’afa said she hopes to take her sport overseas for a pro career.

“I don’t think I’m done with my water polo chapter yet,” she said. “There’s still more I can do.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com

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