Last week, Roosevelt senior Kailiponi McGee scored three goals on power shots in a span of 85 seconds early in the second quarter, opening the door for a 19-3 rout of Castle by the Rough Riders girls water polo team. It was their fifth consecutive victory.
Three days later against Mililani, McGee scored two consecutive goals in the second quarter, giving Roosevelt a brief 3-2 lead before the Lady Trojans would tie the score at halftime. In the second half, McGee appeared tentative. She fouled out with 3:34 remaining and with the score tied 7-7. The Lady Trojans and Riders then exchanged goals, and with 1:36 left, Mililani scored to seal a 9-8 win. Coupled with Leilehua’s 10-1 triumph over Kalani that same day, Roosevelt, Mililani and Leilehua are now tied at the top of the Oahu Interscholastic Association’s Bracket A with 5-1 records.
For Roosevelt, this was seen as a rebuilding year following the graduation of seven seniors who helped lead last season’s Riders to the quarterfinals of the state championships and the 2009 squad to the OIA crown and a third-place finish in the state tournament. Roosevelt’s early success this year is due in large part to McGee, also known as Poni. She is last season’s OIA Player of the Year, and is currently the league’s second-leading scorer with 25 goals.
Her continued development could be a key to determining if Roosevelt can reclaim the OIA crown from powerhouse and defending champion Kahuku the Bracket B leader with a 6-0 record and advance deep into the state tournament. Those two goals are more important than repeating as league player of the year, said the 5-foot-9 McGee, whose coaches said she has the potential to take her game to a higher level.
"She has size, speed, a strong arm, and she can make good quality plays," said head coach Ben Nary II, who previously coached the Chaminade University men’s squad and the Kamehameha boys and girls teams. "She still has a lot of room for improvement. She needs to get others to try to play up to her level."
For Susan Nishioka, an inductee into the Hawaii Swimming Hall of Fame for her water polo accomplishments as a player and coach who led the Roosevelt program until this year, McGee reminds her of Gina Ahue. The 2008 Kahuku graduate and former OIA Player of the Year played briefly for the University of Hawaii.
"She was excellent offensively and defensively," Nishioka said of Ahue. "She just would not give up. She was all over the place. "Poni is like Gina with her power and strength on offense. And (Poni) has good speed, and is able to get open."
Nishioka, now an assistant coach for Roosevelt, added she would like McGee to develop a much more commanding presence in the pool, and be more of a leader in giving directions to her teammates, and also calming them down, when necessary.
McGee acknowledges that she needs to be "more communicative" in a take-charge fashion. But, she explained, "I don’t like confrontation. If I say something that is taken by a teammate in a way that makes them not feel good, that won’t help the team. Water polo is a team sport."
One of McGee’s best friends, senior teammate Janet Ruiz, said: "She’s the kind of person who is always there to listen, and then give advice. She is also the kind of person who knows when you’re sad, and you don’t have to tell her anything (beforehand).
"We click well when we play (water polo). Although we may get frustrated with each other, we never get mad. We brush it off."
Perhaps it is not surprising that McGee would develop a love for water polo. Her father is world-class bodyboarder and surfer Kainoa McGee. When she was 3 months old, he took her roughly 150 yards out to the breakline at Kewalo Basin. "For my family, my nieces and nephews, that’s natural," he said. "I’m careful, so I didn’t do anything wrong. Both of my daughters took to the water naturally." His youngest daughter, Kekaikuihala McGee, a junior who is also on the Roosevelt team, is one of the OIA’s top scorers with 19 goals.
Despite her father’s bellowing presence at games in which he would shout commands to her, her sister and their teammates and toss a verbal grenade or two at a referee over a perceived blown call, Poni McGee considers him her hero and inspiration.
"He didn’t come from much," she said. "He’s accomplished things that other men would have a hard time doing. He has the drive and motivation that I need."
At Kalani High School, which Poni McGee attended before transferring to Roosevelt, she played on the Falcons’ varsity squad as a freshman and sophomore, and was known for her willingness to put in long hours of practice.
Beyond her team-oriented goals for this season, she wants to play collegiately next season, perhaps at the University of Hawaii or Merced College in California.
Nishioka, the Roosevelt assistant, said she has no doubt that McGee can play collegiately. But for her to flourish at the higher level, she will need a coach who is willing to work with all players, developing freshmen and sophomores, and not focusing solely on juniors and seniors.
"Under those conditions, she’ll do well," Nishioka said. "She has lots of room to grow. She can be so much better."