Mata'afa helps Lahainaluna continue excellence in pool
by Stanley Lee
Advertiser Staff Writer
There she sat in the front of his freshman honors social studies classroom, a tall girl who immediately stood out from the rest of her peers.
She was well spoken with an athletic build and great confidence, and the way she carried herself made Will Hutchison realize that Gina-Bella Mata'afa would be perfect as a goalkeeper on his Lahainaluna High School water polo team.
He asked if she'd be interested in trying out for water polo.
Mata'afa asked if it conflicted with wrestling season.
He said no.
Three years later, Mata'afa is the Lunas' confident rock in the goal and part of a team that recently extended its Maui Interscholastic League winning streak to 39 games. Lahainaluna (6-0) has not lost since 2005 and will play either Baldwin or Kamehameha-Maui on Friday for the MIL tournament title and a state tournament berth.
"There's not a whole lot of tall girls on campus and right away she stood out," Hutchison said. "I'm not a really tall guy but I'm looking eye to eye with her.
"She athletic and carries herself with confidence. The confidence is contagious. Her teammates stand taller when she's around."
At nearly 6-feet, Mata'afa is the water polo team's tri-captain and a three-time state wrestling qualifier in the 175-pound division who embodies a confidence level well beyond her years.
"Not a lot of women have that confidence, period," Hutchison said of his junior goalkeeper. "She gets a lot of that from her mother and her sisters."
SOLID WORK ETHIC
Older sister Lia was the Lunas' first state wrestling champion in 1998 when the girls tournament made its debut. The entire family wrestled and Mata'afa started in the third grade, growing up competing against boys and still practicing with them. Sports like soccer and baseball were a means to steer Mata'afa and her siblings away from the negative influences in the community.
"When I was little, we lived in an area with a lot of bad people doing bad things," Mata'afa said. "My parents raised me right, pushed us to do sports instead of sitting in the house all day."
Her family instilled a work ethic to continually improve, to not be a big fish in a small pond. Mata'afa, who was second her sophomore year at state wrestling and was third this year and as a freshman, wants to work on her stamina to help win the gold. She ran cross country this past fall to get in shape for wrestling and water polo, and came into the pool in her best shape ever.
"We always had to work hard for what we have," Mata'afa said. "I have a lot of brothers and sisters and we had to fight for whatever we wanted. I don't want to be second best. I don't want to be top dog and didn't do anything to get there."
DEFENDING THE NET
In the pool, Mata'afa is leading a team that graduated all of its top players from last year, including four-time MIL Player of the Year Moana Tuipulotu. The Lunas redesigned their offense and Mata'afa is now the team's last line of defense.
"We lost a lot of key players last year, but Gina really saves our butts a lot and she has a big impact on us, especially the field players because she really motivates us to do things correctly," said junior Kamaehu Alboro, who described her teammate, study buddy and best friend as having "beautiful hair." "It's going really well because she really takes leadership as one of our team captains, pushes us to do better, which I think personally makes us all better."
Mata'afa is an imposing presence in the pool. She said she likes "pushing other girls' dream of scoring the ball" and likes the look on their faces after she blocks the ball.
"A lot of people are afraid, I'm almost 6 feet and I'm this big Samoan girl," she explained.
Hutchison said Mata'afa, who became the starting goalkeeper last year, is understanding the game more, able to use her lower body and core strength, and relying on technique to make athletic saves.
"She takes criticism but not personally," Hutchison said. "She's always on a mission to get better in what she does. It's her personality to get better at what she does, not massage her ego."