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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 29, 2010

'Bows meet Bruins in opener

By Ann Miller
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Tomorrow, Hawai'i plays five-time defending NCAA women's water polo champion UCLA in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships, at the Bruins' new Spieker Aquatics Center. A win might be enough to get the Rainbow Wahine into the NCAA Championship in two weeks. A loss will end their season.

It is as simple as that, and as cut-throat. Welcome to MPSF water polo, where the top teams are ranked Nos. 1 to 6 nationally and all eight are among the top 14.

The Bruins (17-7) and 'Bows (16-7) are so close they have split 9-8 matches this season and it took them six overtimes to find a winner last month. It is seemingly impossible to find a favorite in the opening day's feature match (noon Hawai'i time); UCLA is No. 4 in the College Water Polo Association poll and UH No. 5, while Hawai'i is seeded fourth in the tournament and UCLA fifth.

The Bruins have had a vast makeover from last season, starting with Punahou graduate Brandon Brooks, who became the program's second coach last June when Adam Krikorian moved to the U.S. women's national team. Brooks is a two-time Olympian who won a silver medal in Beijing and has spent the last three seasons assisting at UCLA.

The 'Bows will be without all-conference center Leonie Van Der Molen, who suffered a dislocated shoulder against Stanford. Van Der Molen led Hawai'i in scoring last season and is second now, to Monika Eggens, who leads the MPSF with 2.3 goals a game. Monika's sister Carmen is just behind Van Der Molen; all three are among the conference's Top 10.

"Playing UCLA without Leonie will be a challenge," UH coach Michel Roy says. "It's a big loss, but Carmen played well the last game, she stepped up. If she wants us to win we will win. That's what I think, but I don't want to put pressure on her."

Brooks' inaugural Bruin team does not have a senior. The Rainbow Wahine have two and both went to high school here, a rarity on a team that boasts players from the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Illinois and California.

Ryan Hanson-Swaner graduated from Hawai'i Preparatory Academy and has relatives who went there when it was still an all-boys boarding school. She has scored 14 goals, including four against UC-Davis, and Roy calls her "the strongest girl I ever met she pushes people around so we are definitely going to miss her."

Mililani graduate Danielle Ingram is a backup goalie with big-time leadership skills, according to Roy. She averages 6.83 saves per match more than starter Serena Bredin, who had 16 saves in the last match against UCLA. Ingram's family has made its mark in Mānoa: Brothers Jake and Luke played football at UH, and Jake is now with the New England Patriots.

Their sister has found happiness in a sport that resembles football, at least beneath the surface. She and Hanson-Swaner picked up the game late in high school. Both fell hard for it, and caught on quickly.

"I came to UH with hardly any experience and pretty much every day for the first two years I felt like I was out of my element," Ingram said. "I thought what am I doing here with these international world-class athletes?"

She and Hanson-Swaner both graduate next month. Both proved they belong, and never stopped learning.

"It's a really technical sport," says Hanson-Swaner, who got her start from HPA coach Mark Noetzel. "I don't think people that watch it realize that. And Mich is a really technical coach."

He is not the only one teaching. Hanson-Swaner is in awe of what she has learned from her college experience and teammates. Her next stop is Israel, where she is going to get her master's degree. She would do this over again in a heartbeat.

"If you want to play with a diverse group of girls and keep your Hawai'i roots this is definitely the place to be," she says "You can watch amazing athletes and really learn from them. It's not just the coaches."

Ingram plans to help coach next season while she is pursuing her master's. She is still making up for lost time, playing with teammates who started in the sport a decade before she did. Her advice to others who have the same opportunity is to seize it.

"If you're willing to come here and compete as hard as you can with all these girls with all their experiences they've accumulated since they were 7 ," she says, "I would tell them this was the best experience of my life. I've loved every minute of it."