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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 25, 2006

'Bows buoyed by versatile Van Belkum

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

MPSF WATER POLO

WHAT: Fifth-ranked Hawai'i (8-6, 3-2) vs. eighth-ranked UC Santa Barbara (12-9, 2-4) today and ninth-ranked San Jose State (8-9, 3-3) tomorrow

WHERE: Duke Kahanamoku Aquatic Complex

WHEN: 4:30 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PARKING: $3

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Rainbow Wahine water polo coach Michel Roy doesn't just gush about Iefke (pronounce Eef-ka) Van Belkum's game. Roy goes right on into awe and amazement.

As Hawai'i moves into the final week of its home schedule, ranked fifth and clustered in a crowd chasing top-ranked Southern California, Roy pays Van Belkum possibly his ultimate compliment.

"She is doing things," he says, more with awe than anger, "that I would never teach."

Van Belkum, 19, came here from The Netherlands on the advice of former UH All-American and later assistant coach Karin van Hoff, who is also Dutch. Water polo is second only to soccer at home, with national leagues for men and women and weekends often spent camping by the pool. The country's history of women's water polo goes to 1906 and it has won more world titles than any other nation.

Van Belkum started with the Dutch junior national team at 14 and was promoted to the senior squad three years later. She learned about serious conditioning and earned All-America honors as a freshman here last year, and was a first-team all-NCAA Tournament selection while helping UH to a fourth-place national finish.

She has risen at a dizzying rate in large part because of defense.

She and freshman Kelly Mason lead the Rainbow Wahine with 27 goals apiece, and Van Belkum is second in assists to Kristy Bagnall. But, in the starkest statistic of all, Van Belkum has 23 of Hawai'i's 75 steals 13 more than any other Rainbow and precisely as many as 11 teammates combined.

"She is so with the sport," Roy says. "She understands it so much. When we watch videos of our games you just see her weave through the pool and suddenly she comes up with the ball. Defensively, she has one of the greatest minds I have ever seen."

Roy, 44, spent 25 years with Canada's national program and is in his fourth year here. He calls Van Belkum the "heart and soul" of this UH team and is thankful she is blessed with rare ability, and the rare ability to forget.

"Some girls miss a shot and they're gone three or four weeks," Roy says. "It's self-confidence and it is so big in female sports. Iefke has the great ability to play the game and do whatever is necessary to win it."

He attributes it more to intuition and instinct than the lean 6-foot-1 figure that stands out in the pool, but is not overly imposing. Van Belkum's father also played for The Netherlands, while two uncles played in the Olympics. "My father," Van Belkum says in his defense, "chose to go to school."

Alex Van Belkum's daughter can be a phantom. One of Iefke's rarest talents is her ability to appear in the pool without warning, sneaking in behind a teammate for a steal down low.

"If we are decent on defense now, it is because she is great," he says. "We work on certain things and she comes up with the ball doing something else. She has a brilliant mind. At her age, it is unheard of. Nationally, there are one or two girls I've seen like her, that sees more than I do, or at least sees it at the same time."

He describes her gift as the ability to not only "understand the system" but "do greater things with it."

Van Belkum hopes to help The Netherlands get back to the Olympics, but realizes she has compelling challenges to overcome first like consistency.

"I'm still young," she says. "I can have great games and then a game when I'm like invisible. I don't do a lot of things wrong, but I don't create a lot of action."

This weekend, her assignment is to help Hawai'i (8-6) stop two more Top-10 teams out of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, in UC Santa Barbara and San Jose State. The 'Bows have won five of their past seven, with the only losses to top-ranked USC and No. 3 UCLA, the defending national champion.

NOTES

Hawai'i's home schedule concludes with second-ranked Stanford Tuesday (4:30 p.m.), 16th-ranked Hartwick (9 a.m.) and the New Zealand national team (3:30 p.m.) Wednesday and third-ranked UCLA Friday (4:30 p.m.). Hartwick is a small (average class size 18) private liberal arts and science college in the northern foothills of New York's Catskill Mountains.

The 'Bows' last four regular-season matches are in California, followed by the MPSF Championship, April 27 to 30 at UC Irvine.

Reach Ann Miller at amiller@honoluluadvertiser.com.