By Tiff Wells.
This week, our University of Hawaii student-athlete Q&A spotlights water polo standout Lalelei Mata‘afa. The redshirt junior center out of Lahainaluna High School had a memorable 2020 (COVID-shortened) season, scoring 28 goals – including a career-high five goals against Azusa Pacific on Feb. 1.
Q: You’re listed as a center on the roster. What exactly does that position do during a water polo match, and what are your responsibilities in head coach Maureen Cole’s system? Have you always been a center?
As a center my main job on offense is to hold position and score. Hold position with the intent to receive the ball from a teammate or hold position in order to open something else up on the perimeter. Water polo is definitely the most physically demanding team sport I have played. My responsibilities in Coach Mo’s system are especially important because it is difficult to run an offense if your player at center is not doing their job. My main focus going into games is to execute what is asked of me so we can be successful as a team.
Although I am center here for Wahine, I have not always been a center. My role on my high school team at Lahainaluna was close to a role of those who would play utility or anywhere I was needed. I played primarily center D on defense and at the 3 position on offense. The times where my coach would put me at center in a game was not a traditional way of playing the center position. He would basically tell me “Set at 5 meters. Draw a foul and take the shot.” When I arrived for my first year at Hawaii, I had little to no experience of how to play the center position properly. Coach Mo saw the potential that I could be really great at the center position. I just needed the time and practice to develop more. That is where the decision to redshirt my first year came from. I am glad I did; I am sure Katie and Mo were too because they get to spend more time working with me!
Q: There are two Hawai`i born players on the team, you and Redshirt Freshman Rebecca Buenrostro-Gallimore (Wailuku, Maui/Baldwin HS). How much pride do the two of you have in not only playing for the University of Hawai`i, but also representing the island of Maui as well? What does it mean to play for UH?
It is an amazing opportunity at hand that Rebecca and I were able to take our talents further than just high school water polo. I believe Becca was a sophomore when I was a senior. We went to rivaling high schools, Becca played for Baldwin and I played for Lahainaluna. I could tell that she was a great player and would continue on to college to play. It is a bonus that we were able to join teams at the collegiate level! Maui is a small island with great athletic talent to go around, unfortunately not everyone gets the exposure to venture out after high school. Even though we are a 15min plane ride away from our home, UH is home to us. Being able to compete and represent our home is an accomplishment in itself. Speaking on behalf of Rebecca and myself I would say we are proud to be playing at the level we are. I am sure we are making our friends and family back on Maui proud also.
Q: 12 goals as a redshirt freshman, 16 as a redshirt sophomore. You had the second-most goals on the team (28) and had the fourth-most points on the team (30) before the 2020 season came to an abrupt end on March 13th. How special do you think 2020 could have been?
It’s hard to say the exact outcome of what the 2020 season could have been but let me tell you this, my teammates and I were finding our rhythm. Feels as if each game we played we were improving; I do not think we were taking any steps back at all, our foot was on the gas pedal. I think we could have done some serious damage with the remaining games we would have had before COVID-19 cancelled spring sports. It is past us now and nothing we can do about it. Instead we will look forward and try to duplicate the production we were having last season only this time do it even better. I am looking forward to this upcoming season. We are motivated to keep improving and get better as a team.
Q: You come from a family of successful athletes including your brother, Hercules, who is an NFL player and sister, Gina-Bella, who played water polo at Notre Dame, what was it like growing up in a home where athletic success was so strong? Who do you look up to most in your family and lean on in tough situations?
I believe the athletic success came to my siblings and I because we love sports. There are seven of us Mata’afa kids, we were all multi-sport athletes, we played soccer, basketball, wrestling, football, volleyball, even tennis. Pretty much any physical activity as an organized sport or just for fun. We all did it because we loved what we were doing. I think that’s where success stems from, when you love something you put your heart and soul into it. So, to answer your question it was fun growing up in a home where there was always the excitement of competition, whether you are competing yourself or cheering on your siblings at their events. My parents were the most supportive of all, they always let us make our own decision on whether or not we want to participate in a sport. No matter what the support was always there! The love for the game and support is what led my siblings Gina-Bella and Hercules to move on professionally in their sport.
We are a unit, closer than one would imagine. If ever a tough situation is present, we all have each other’s backs. No matter the situation. I would not pick out any specific member because they all are supportive, and I know they will support me in my lowest of lows or highest of highs.
Q: You prepped at Lahainaluna High school, a 2016 alumna. Go Lunas! A two-sport standout in both water polo and wrestling. Is either sport harder to train for than the other? What do you miss about wrestling because you’re just 1 of 4 in state history to be a 4-time Hawai`i wrestling state champion?
Yes! Go Lunas! Both sports are physically and mentally demanding. If you compete or played either sport, I congratulate you because I know how hard training can be for each to its own. Lahainaluna wrestling program is different. Training was tough and it made us better wrestlers because you had to train your mind to keep going when you thought you have had enough. I have been to a few other high schools’ post-graduation and saw how their training went. They were nowhere near as hard as the workout/training you will get up in the Luna’s wrestling room. As for water polo you have to tread water, swim, defend drives, wrestle for position, counterattack. So, many different components to consider playing water polo. You have to train every muscle in your body to withstand a season of water polo. Both sports have an intense training regimen, they are definitely not for everyone. For me personally I would say water polo is a harder sport to train for. For anyone reading if you disagree, you are more than welcome to try both out and let me know what you think.
The one thing I miss most about wrestling is tournament days because I got to put my hard work to the test, where it actually counts. Tournament days were also fun because of the atmosphere. Incredibly competitive and fun cheering on teammates in between matches.
Q: We know that UH doesn’t offer women’s wrestling. What factors led you to choose water polo as your collegiate sport? What led you to pick UH? Was it tough to go through that redshirt season in 2017 after being a high school standout?
It came down to the wire, I literally committed to the Hawaii at the latest deadline possible. My senior year of high school I was torn between the two sports. I had a successful wrestling career so initially I thought I am going to take that path. However, I clearly was not giving up the thought of playing water polo. I had different schools contacting me for each sport and I was not able to give clear cut answers to any of them. In January I actually verbally committed to a college for wrestling. It was the day before my last first tournament. In that moment and throughout the rest of my season I was set on wrestling. However, my mind changed the week after I had won my fourth straight state title. I was extremely excited for water polo and that is when I realized that maybe that is what I am meant to do. The main factor that led me to choose water polo over wrestling was whether or not there is a future for me to continue competing after college. I felt I would have done very well and continued my success as a wrestler in college. I had to come to the realization that after college there is not much I could do as a wrestler. I mean maybe MMA or some other fighting organization, but I had my eyes on the Olympics. The highest weight class available for women’s wrestling in the Olympics is 76kgs (167.2lbs) I am telling you right now with my height and body type that weight class is too light for me to make and still wrestle at my best. As for water polo there are many more opportunities to continue playing. Olympics, Pro leagues in Europe or different countries around the world. Another factor that came into play was the challenge. I mean challenge as in water polo was drawing me in because I enjoyed it but at same time, I felt I had potential to get even better. I like challenges so deciding to play water polo seemed intriguing to me. I wanted to keep growing my knowledge and level of playing as a water polo player. These factors are what led me to eventually sign with Hawaii, June 6th, 2016.
When I first decided to redshirt it was not easy because I cannot stand not being able to compete. It was hard to sit out of any sort of games for the first time since the age of 5. Although it was a tough decision to redshirt, I do not regret it at all. It was beneficial for me to get accustomed to the change of pace from high school to collegiate level water polo. Being able to take that year off to catch up or at least start learning what type of player I can be, really helped me and will help in the long run.
Q: Coming off the fourth-place finish at the Barbara Kalbus Invitational in Irvine, California, you folks were 11-2 and about to begin conference play at UC San Diego. Ranked fourth in the nation, team was in La Jolla and the day before you’re scheduled to play, you find out the conference is indefinitely suspending all spring competition. Just how hard was it to process that? What was the feeling like when you found out all spring sport athletes were to be granted an additional season?
We were all in disbelief. It all happened so quickly. That morning, before we headed out to practice, we were watching news about how the NBA just cancelled/postponed their season. It was such a big announcement that we were sure that other organizations would follow in their example. However, we chose to just go about our schedule as planned. It was not until we arrived at the UCSD pool that we received the news that this was going to be our last practice. We were coming off a long two weeks of not having any games, so it was devastating not to be able to play once more. We ended up scrimmaging each other however. For my teammates and I, it was really hard to process the fact that our season came to an abrupt end. Emotions were running high, we were all filled with uncertainty, it was just one of those moments where it does not feel real.
It was such an exciting moment, when the news broke about the NCAA granting all spring sports an extra season. I think it is only right that they did that. Many athletes, seniors especially are given the opportunity to play again. It’s exciting because what we have going on here with wahine water polo is special. For my teammates and I to have the opportunity to play alongside each other longer will only strengthen our bond. Overall, the feeling is relief and excitement.
Q: How do you stay physically fit and mentally strong during a global pandemic? Just how tough was it to train when the athletic facilities (pool, weight room, etc.) were closed?
My advice is to keep yourself busy. It’s so easy to fall into a cycle of not doing anything, I played victim to that cycle. I was stuck in this mindset that was toxic because I believed that we were not going to ever have a season again. I thought my collegiate water polo career was over, so I was sulking in self-pity. Its only after I changed my view and mindset about the situation that I started feeling better. I was thinking more positively, reaching out to teammates to see how they are doing, and made a schedule for myself so I had some structure.
I was on Maui for the majority of the lock down. The pools and gyms were not open. I had to find a different way to get work out in, luckily, I live in a place that has beautiful clear water beaches, so swimming was still available to me. As things started to open up on Maui, I took up boxing and jiu-jitsu class run by my brother-in-law Kendall Grove at his gym. When times get tough you have to get creative and find different solutions to your challenges. Although I could not be in a pool, I found a way to stay active by hiking, ocean swimming, throwing a football with my brother Matai, boxing, whatever it may be as long as I did something. Having something to do kept me sane in a time as uncertain as now.
Q: In your family, who is the best cook? And when you go home, what are a couple of the dishes you request the parentals (Sophie and Uluao) to make?
My family would agree in a unanimous decision that I am hands down the best cook. Actually, it is not unanimous and one thing we actually debate about a lot of the time is who is the best chef. If I had to choose one person besides myself, I would probably say my oldest sister Lia is the next best cook. My favorite dish of hers would probably be her breaded porkchops with quinoa, cheesy Hassel back potatoes, and choice of brussel sprouts or broccoli. My younger brother Matai makes a pretty good burger, and my older sister Anna makes a really good pulled pork.
My mom and dad love it when I am home because I become the new chef of the house. My mom purposefully stocks the fridge up with ingredients because she knows I like to cook. The dish I request the most from my parents is either stuffed peppers from my mom or my dad’s version of chicken katsu.
Q: All UH teams log a ton of airline miles every season. What are the must have items in your carry-on bag when you board the plane? When on the road, do you have a go-to spot for a meal with the girls?
Must have items for me are earphones and filled Hydroflask of ice water. I need my music, especially when our flights are 5 hours long. Staying hydrated is important so I make sure I have enough water to keep me satisfied. Other than that, I don’t really know what is a must have, I guess a phone charger as well so the music will keep going throughout the flight.
When given the opportunity the girls and I like to go to chipotle or shop at Trader Joes for a salad or wrap. It all just depends on the day and time of our games. If it’s game day we eat things that will make us feel good, so we do not crash. However, if we are done with our tournament that is when we will treat ourselves to restaurants that we do not have here in Hawaii, such as In-N-Out.
Q: When the Summer Olympics are on and they air a water polo match, an underwater camera is used and we the viewer can see just how physical it gets underwater. Just how crazy can it get under water during a match?
As a spectator you only see what is at the surface of the water. Rarely will you see what goes on beneath it. Same thing goes for referees, they cannot catch every kickoff, pinch, or punch that goes on below. Water polo is a physical game, and it takes a toll on the body if you are playing more physical players that like to throw in some cheap shots. With that being said as a player you cannot let those cheap shots get to you. That is what your opponents want, they want you to focus on trying to get them back, instead of winning the game. So, staying mentally focused while you are in this intense physical game of water polo is so important. Must stay headstrong in moments where you just want to get back at a player for hitting you, or it can cost you the game.
Q: We thank you for your time today, Lale. Finally, take us through a typical gameday both here at home and on the road.
Game day always starts off with waking up at least 3 hours before you have to play. This way it gives us time to fully wake up. On the road, we stay at embassy suites where breakfast is included, so as a team we go get something light from the breakfast bar whether it’s some fruit, toast, eggs, you name it. We fuel our body’s the way that will help us. After breakfast we will have a team meeting to go over the game plan for the team we are playing. After the team meeting, we load up the vans, have a jam session with pump up songs on the way to the pool, and finally arrive. From there we change into our game suits and circle up as a team. We do our dry land stretching/pump up routine (it is a must see, you cannot miss us when we are on the pool deck). Then we head into the water and do our game warm up. Then it is game time!
Our home games are usually in evening time at 6pm. We will do a stretching session in the morning, get in water, and do whatever we need to stretch out or get some shots on a cage in. The purpose of having a loosen out is to prepare our body’s for games that may be later in the day. Then we all go home, get some breakfast and chill before we go back to the pool deck. When we get back to the pool deck, we meet and go over the game plan. Afterwards we get changed and meet back to do our dry land stretching/pregame routine. Next, we will do our water pregame warm up. Then it is game time!
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