On The Record with Maureen Cole, Head Coach of Hawai’i Women’s Water Polo

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Hawai'i Head Coach Maureen Cole. Photo Courtesy: Jay Metzger

Editor’s Note: The 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament is happening this week—and Swimming World has you covered! Keep up with all the action online or look for #SwimmingWorld on Twitter and other social media platforms.

Hawai’i is a distant paradise that just happens to possess one of America’s top women’s water polo programs—and Maureen Cole, one of the country’s best polo coaches. Now in her eighth season coaching the Rainbow Wahine (18-5), she’s taken her team to three NCAA tournaments, winning the Big West title in 2013, 2015 and now 2019.

For Cole—and her players—efforts, each of these seasons she was named Big West Coach of the Year. But this year may have been the most deserved—and sweetest. Facing a UC Irvine team that had tagged a favored Hawai’i squad with a sudden death OT defeat in last year’s Big West final, Cole made a gutsy call in the 2019 title tilt, swapping out goalies at halftime. The move paid off as the Rainbow Wahine rallied for a 7-6 win to qualify for the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

[2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament Bracket Announced]

A graduate of UCLA, where she won three national championships (2000, 2001, 2003) playing under legendary Bruin coach Adam Krikorian, in 2007 Cole returned to her home state to take an assistant coach position at Hawai’i where she helped the Rainbow Wahine qualify for their first-ever NCAA tournament in 2009. Taking the head coaching reins in 2012, Cole has built Hawai’i into a perennial top-five program, developing a number of talented players, including Irene Gonzalez, the 2018 and 2019 Big West Player of the Year who will finish her career as the program’s second-leading scorer.

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Rainbow Wahine celebrate 2019 Big West championship. Photo Courtesy: John Fajardo

Before a quarterfinal match-up today with fourth-seed Cal, Cole spoke with Swimming World about how her island home is a component her program’s success, why Gonzalez is more than just an offensive threat, how her time at UCLA is key to Rainbow Wahine’s “defense first” philosophy and matching-up against former Bruin teammate Coralie Simmons, now head coach for the Golden Bears.

You were again honored as Big West Coach of the Year. As you build your program’s reputation, is this the type of milestone that allows for bringing in better athletes, getting improved results out of the Rainbow Wahine?

I’m definitely honored, but at the end of the day what helps build our program and the recruiting is the team itself. The fact that they’re playing great water polo at a high level and competing with the best teams in the country. Fortunate enough to qualify for NCAAs and they’re enjoying their time in Hawaii, earning a degree and have great things and great experiences to pass on to their friends.

I think that’s what I care, and I think that’s what helped build our program, not really the accolades.

What is it about being in Hawaii that enables you to attract some of the world’s best women water polo players?

We have a great athletic department. It’s very supportive. We have great facilities. Solid academic. Girls are going on to become engineers and lawyers and they’re successful outside of their life academically when they leave here. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.

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What could be better than playing at the Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex? Photo Courtesy: Hawai’i Athletics

I didn’t go to college here but I grew up in Hawaii. I traveled all around the world, and to be able to be where we are at the end of day, and experience that on the weekends, and for four years of your life, it’s a good deal.

The girls that travel so far, they’re going to travel regardless if they chose to go to university. We’re talking about going home at Christmas and during the summer, and that’s just twice a year. Girls can handle that.

The team is just… we are a family, I think that’s maybe what also I just love about our team. It makes us unique. Everyone is from somewhere across the ocean, and that makes a really close-knit family atmosphere. The girls are there for each other. It’s fun to be a part of.

You use the term “family”–a term a lot of coaches use. What makes the Hawaii family distinct is its diversity in terms of backgrounds.

I do my best to recruit girls that appreciate differences. We have so many different cultures and so many unique things within our group that we can laugh about. It’s a fun environment.

I went to UCLA and you’re separated quite a bit. You’d go to Thanksgiving dinner at one friend’s house. Well, we have a huge group of girls having Thanksgiving together because that’s their first Thanksgiving dinner; some of them don’t even know what Thanksgiving is. They’re experiencing those traditions together as a team, and it’s different when you’re isolated, like we are.

Well yes, isolated in paradise I supposed is a way you could put it—there’s something about being in that beautiful environment that’s both different and captivating. You have arguably one of the best players in the game. Irene Gonzales, she’s been good for a long time. Back to back Big West player of the Year. What makes her so good?

She’s competitive. She loves the game of water polo and I think she’s someone who can generate offense on her own, but I think she would be the first one to say that her teammates have allowed her to score as many goals as she has. I mean we have a great center (Elyse Lemay-Lavoie) who forces teams to drop a little bit more. We’ve got great girls on the one side of the pool (Femke Aan and Maxine Schaap). Great passers that are setting her up and finding her when she finds the open water.

I think we’re just so balanced and then with that, coupled with her talent and her creating her own opportunities, she just puts herself in good positions to score a lot. I think she leads our team or is tied with our team on assists too.

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Irene Gonzalez, Hawai’i’s top scorer, is also a superb defender. Photo Courtesy: John Fajardo

She does a lot offensively [but] where she leads us the most is defensively. She comes up with huge field saves… she does things that I don’t allow others to do defensively, because she can move quicker and has such good instincts that she finds herself in the right place at the right time, because she reads the game so well.

That part really it makes a big difference for us.

You played at UCLA under Adam Krikorian, where it’s defense first, last and always.

That is 100% my mentality. It’s funny how things have to adjust with who you have. The reality is, unlike at UCLA, we have a lot of girls that shoot the ball. I don’t think you can pick out very many girls on the UH team right now, that you’d be okay with giving up the free shot, because we have so many weapons.

The girls though, they learn here that if all they do is shoot, they’re not going to play very much. They’ve got to be consistent on defense. That’s something that I’ve always grown up with and believed in. The consistency there, it’s got to be there, because in the big moments, in the big west championships, and the game tomorrow, if you’re giving up easy goals, the other team is going to make you work really hard for yours.

You got to do a good job of making them work for theirs and not give any away.

Last year Yman Hage, now a graduate assistant, was your goalie—and one of the conference’s best. Now you’ve got sophomore Molly DiLalla and freshman Bridget Layburn.

It’s totally different. With Yman, she was the primary goalie. Bridget actually came in January [and] she’s 17. She’s super young. It’s just been a great… they’ve supported each other and they compete really hard in practice. Molly had to step in last year when Yman got hurt in the middle of the season, so she gained a ton of experience. She’s just improved so much.

Then you’ve got Bridget who has kind of the opposite. She’s a little longer and quicker but doesn’t have as much experience and is just learning so much from Molly. They just make each other better.

In that final game in the Big West [championship match], I made a change at half. Molly wasn’t playing poorly. I just had this feeling that maybe it was a good switch to make. They both have stepped up in big moments throughout the year. It’s a good problem to have, to have two solid goalies.

Coming into the Big West final, you make a gutsy call against your biggest rival…and it pays off.

It just felt like it might be the right move to make and I think our team has been comfortable with both goalies in the net all year long, because they pretty much have been splitting time.

I don’t think the shift was surprise to them. The one thing for us—and we always rally around it—is everyone on our team including me, is always doing everything we can to put ourselves in position to win. Maybe the instinct was wrong in that moment, maybe it wasn’t. No one knew at the time, but I have all of their support in the decisions. I trust them that they’re going to do their best. That’s just the way we roll.

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Hawai’i’s Bridget Layburn. Photo Courtesy: John Fajardo

No matter who was in that game, we had one common goal, and the belief was there. As challenges arose, we had the mentality that we were going to do whatever it took.

And now you’re back at NCAAs for a third time and the most recent since 2015. How is this time different than the others?

This is a completely different team. Other than myself, and my assistant coach [Katie Teets] who went with me as player in 2013, no one on our staff has ever been here. So, this is new to them and their experience. Water polo isn’t new, and so for us nothing’s really different from what it was two weeks ago, or the last 10 years of their lives. The match up, we’re excited to have the opportunity to play Cal again. I think we’re pretty evenly matched.

Just like in our game against Irvine, the teams that can come up with the big goals, or the big stops is going to win. But I’m expecting it to be a competitive game. We’re going to go for it.

When I spoke to you last year at the Kalbus Invitational, we talked about Coach Simmons, who is a fierce competitor with tremendous integrity and passion for the game—which makes you two of a kind.

I was fortunate enough to pay with her at the first NCAA championship way back when. We’re both really competitive and we both love water polo. It’s not easy being a woman and head coach. The time that it takes to build a good program; I think we’re both fortunate to have loving spouses that support a lot and allow us to work as hard as we do.

We both have great mentors and Adam [Krikorian] and other people in our lives that helped us get to where we are. I think it’s important for our sport. I’m super proud we’re playing in that game tomorrow and that we’re there. That we exist and there needs to be more of us. That’s part of what I do. What I do is to show, to build strong women and show them that they can do anything they want. It doesn’t have to be a man’s world all the time. I’m excited for that. I love Cora, she’s awesome.