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Mata‘afa excited for pro opportunity in Greece

Lalelei Mata‘afa takes aim during a game for the University of Hawaii in 2021. Mata‘afa, a graduate of Lahainaluna High School, has signed a one-year contract with AEK Women’s Water Polo Club in Greece. UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII ATHLETICS photos

Lalelei Mata’afa isn’t done with water polo just yet.

After finishing her sixth season as a center for the University of Hawaii, Mata’afa heads overseas in September to compete for the AEK Women’s Water Polo Club in Greece.

“I still feel like I am able to play at another level and I’m not ready to give up water polo yet, so it’s going to be a great opportunity to go across seas and show them what I got,” the Lahainaluna High School graduate said via phone Monday afternoon. “I’m super excited to go out there and play for them.”

The AEK Women’s Water Polo Club is a department of the AEK Athletic Club, which is a longtime major Greek multi-sport club based in Athens. The Golden Eagles play in the Greek Women’s Water Polo A1 League, the highest professional water polo league in Greece.

The league is run by the Hellenic Swimming Federation, which is considered one of the top national leagues in European water polo. AEK finished fourth in the A1 league last season.

Lalelei Mata‘afa, shown during a UH game in 2020, said she looks up to big sister Gina-Bella, who played professionally in Italy and is now an assistant coach at Penn State Behrend. “She taught me a lot in this sport and I want to make her proud,” Lalelei Mata‘afa said.

Overall, Greece has a long-standing tradition of having strong water polo players and Mata’afa is looking forward to expanding her skillset and learning a little Greek, too.

“I’m excited to find out more, but from what I’ve researched and from what I know from talking to the coach and everything is that they’re a really good team, but they want to make the extra step to be in the top of their league,” she said.

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.

It’s always been “a dream of mine” to play professionally, she said. But, the young athlete had big decisions to make when entering collegiate athletics — whether she would compete in wrestling or water polo.

“But one of my decisions came down to ‘how can I continue to play after college? How can I continue to do what I love?’ “

And so, Mata’afa chose water polo.

With the Rainbow Wahine, Mata’afa had the highest shooting percentage on the team in 2021 as a redshirt junior and scored the second-most goals (28) on the team in 2020 during the pandemic-shortened season.

“I’ve loved every year and I’ve learned to grow every year that I was at UH,” she said. “I’m leaving behind great teammates. My coach, Mo (Maureen Cole), she taught me a lot as well. I spoke to a lot of them and they are very excited for me and they’re ready for me to take this next step in my life.”

Though Mata’afa has never been to Greece, she is no stranger to Europe. She’s traveled to Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

“I’m excited because I’ve always wanted to go there, and obviously I love water polo, so it’s a good opportunity to explore a place that I’ve never been before,” she said. “I’m just looking to give it my best and escalate how far we can go in the Greek league.”

Big sister Gina-Bella Mata’afa played professionally in the Italian league, including with the Rari Nantes Imperia as their top goal scorer and as starting center with the Rari Nantes Bologna, helping them to three championship playoffs, according to her bio on the Penn State Behrend athletics website — Gina-Bella is now an assistant water polo coach for the Lions.

“She taught me a lot about positioning and how to capitalize on other people’s positioning to make your positioning better,” Lale Mata’afa said. “I look up to her. She taught me a lot in this sport and I want to make her proud. She’s already proud of me, but she’s very excited for my opportunity to go. … She’s going to be cheering me on from afar but I’m going to take everything she’s taught me and apply it to my situation in Greece.”

Currently back on Maui for the summer, Mata’afa has been visiting family, swimming and cross-training with mixed martial arts, wrestling and kickboxing.

Her contract with AEK is currently set for a year, with opportunities to renew.

“I’m still not done, I still feel like I have a lot of things to learn,” she said. “I’m excited to take it to the next level. I’m really excited to play for this team in Greece.”

* Dakota Grossman is at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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