Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine water polo head coach Maureen Cole waves to the crowd following a match for UH. Hawai’i’s season came to an end on Saturday, May 11 in the national semifinals, falling to #3 Cal, 9-6. | Photo Credit: Michael Lasquero, HSRN

Historic Hawai’i season ends with close loss to California in national semifinals

BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED MAY 11, 2024

All good things must come to an end. 

An all-time great season for the Rainbow Wahine water polo program came to a close on Saturday afternoon as 2nd-seeded Hawai’i (23-4) fell in the National Collegiate Women’s Water Polo Championship semifinals to 3rd-seeded California, 9-6. The hosting Bears’ defense put a straitjacket on the Rainbow Wahine offense, holding Hawai’i to a 2-for-17 clip on 6-on-5 advantage opportunities throughout the day. 

That defensive effort combined with a six-goal avalanche in the 2nd quarter from California (19-6) proved to be enough to down the number two team in the country as the Bears advanced to the program’s first national championship appearance since 2011 and second overall. Hawai’i’s season closes after advancing to the nation’s final four for the first time since 2013. 

“I’m just really proud of the Wahine team for this year, this season,” veteran Hawai’i head coach Maureen Cole said following the loss. “This game in particular didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but they fought until the end and that’s just a testament to the people they are.” 

The loss closes the coaching career of the Hawai’i water polo legend in Cole, who now heads into retirement as the all-time wins leader in program history. For the Punahou School graduate and former UCLA three-time national champion in her own playing days, there was no group of people she would have wanted to enjoy her final season at the helm with. 

“A great group of girls,” the 13-year head coaching veteran gushed. “There’s no group I would want to spend the last nine months with and I’m just really proud of their efforts. It’s sports. There’s a winner, there’s a loser. These were two evenly matched teams, [and] we couldn’t put the ball away very well today, they did. Credit to Cal … just wish this [season] could’ve gone on for another day, but proud of the team.” 

Cal provided an early jab, getting the scoring started early with the first two goals of the match to begin the 1st quarter before junior attacker Bernadette Doyle got Hawai’i on the board with her first goal at the 2:24 mark of the opening period. 

The 2nd quarter proved to be the difference as Cal’s offense delivered a haymaker with six goals in the frame while holding Hawai’i to two scores, dominating the first half’s exclusion chances with goals in 4-of-6 advantage opportunities while holding UH to 2-of-9 in first half 6-on-5’s. 

“The power play tells [the story] pretty much,” Cole said of the Rainbow Wahine’s offensive woes. “We weren’t putting the ball away … I thought we were getting good looks on the cage.” 

Hawai’i’s staunch defense settled back in during the 3rd quarter, holding Cal off the board entirely in the frame. Again, it was offensive struggles keeping the Rainbow Wahine at a deficit as the offense struggled to capitalize on chances on the net and scored only once in the defensive masterpiece of a quarter. 

Doyle pulled Hawai’i within three with her second goal of the contest coming a minute and a half into the final quarter, but an immediate answer from Cal’s Elena Flynn erased the effort quickly and gave the Bears a 9-5 lead. Still, Doyle wouldn’t allow the Rainbow Wahine to go quietly into the offseason as she completed her hat trick with her third goal of the game with 4:27 left in regulation. 

Hawai’i had another chance to pull within two with a penalty shot from five meters out with just under four minutes left, but it was saved and pushed wide of the post by Cal goal keeper Isabel Williams, who tallied 14 saves in the semifinal matchup and helped the Bears hold UH to a season-low in goals en route to the 9-6 victory for the 3rd-seed. 

Maryn Dempsey posted a hat trick of her own for the Bears, leading Cal with three scores while five other players found the back of the net for the hosting team. California advances to the national championship game to face the unbeaten top-seeded UCLA Bruins on Sunday. 

Hawai’i was led by Doyle’s trifecta of goals, her sixth hat trick of the season. Big West Player of the Year Bia Mantellato Dias followed closely with a pair of scores herself while senior Alba Bonamusa Boix closed her college career with one final goal for the Rainbow Wahine. 

“For this group, I think [this season] is historic,” Cole reflected on the year for Hawai’i. “We went undefeated in conference, the first time we had ever beaten Stanford, we beat USC twice. I mean, those are things that this group will never have taken away from them. This is the first time we’ve made [a national semifinal] in the new format, I know we’ve made it before but it’s harder to get here [now].” 

“I’ve been very proud to be a part of this team,” junior attacker Bernadette Doyle added. “We all worked really hard … I’m so happy I was able to be coached by Mo again and [associate head coach James Robinson]. It’s been a great year with the team, and we’ve just tried to make Hawai’i proud.” 

With the retirement of Cole, Robinson will step into the full-time head coaching role going forward for the Hawai’i Rainbow Wahine program. Much like Cole, Robinson is a three-time national champion from his playing days in the pool at UCLA and came to the UH program after helping on the staff that led the 2021 UCLA women’s water polo team to a national championship appearance. 

“I think Coach Robinson is the best that there is [and] that Hawai’i is in phenomenal hands,” an emotional Maureen Cole responded about the future of the program. “That is really why I’m at complete peace walking away. I always want to leave things better than I found it and I think I did that, and I think the program is going to be better off with him leading the program moving forward. I’m excited for him, he’s as good as they get.”