LOS ANGELES – Hard to imagine that a team could lose eight seniors and be better, but UCLA appears to have gotten stronger through a youth movement.
The preseason No. 1 stayed there all season, finishing an undefeated 28-0, including winning the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship.
About the only accomplishment UCLA hasn’t achieved this years the team hopes to secure this weekend as they will try and repeat as NCAA Men’s Water Polo Champions.
The Bruins begin their defense, Saturday when they face UC San Diego at Spieker Aquatics Center at UCLA’s campus. If they win the semifinal, they will face the winner of USC/Cal match in the championship match.
Related: Tournament schedule
UCLA is the defending champion, winning last year with a strong team of upperclassmen that ended their careers defeating rival USC for the title.
“We did lose a lot of guys, but we have a lot of new guys playing roles that they were prepared for,” said Adam Wright, UCLA head coach. “It’s become a lot easier as a coach when we are able to be consistent because we get them to do the same thing that the seniors did.”
Having freshmen and sophomores learn from the seniors in 2014 was a big advantage this year.
“We don’t want to lose eight seniors and not be able to continue to play at a high level,” Wright said. “They got to see how the seniors trained and played and were expected to do the same thing.”
The team is not completely devoid of upperclassmen. Two seniors, Danny McClintick and Anthony Daboub are starters and Junior Ryder Roberts leads the team in scoring.
Another top junior is goalie, Garrett Danner, arguably the best at his position in the country. He was named MPSF Player of the Year and anchors the best defense in the country.
“It’s no secret we are a defensive team,” Wright said. “We have a great goalie and if you can play great defense, you can have an off night offensively.”
The team led the nation in goals against average, but the offense didn’t sputter much. UCLA outscored their opponents 376 to 152.
Though Wright had a plan in place, he wasn’t certain it would come together.
“I knew we had good pieces,” Wright said. “Did I think we would have this successful of season, probably not, but I knew we were capable of playing with anyone.”
That was proven over the summer when the team represented the US at the World University Games in July in South Korea. The team won the competition playing against much more experienced players.
“That was where I saw it turn and them come together as a team,” Wright said. “They were playing 27 and 28 year old professionals and they played great.”
It gave the team even more confidence when they began the season the first week of September. They won their first two games 14-4 and 20-4 and never looked back. When the conference schedule began the Bruins didn’t let up much and going undefeated in conference is one of the more impressive achievements.
“The reality is the MPSF is a dogfight,” Wright said. “Even going to a Pepperdine or Long Beach State you better be ready or you can get clipped.”
About the only real adversity UCLA faced were three tough conference games against Cal and USC that they won by one goal. Then they met Cal in the finals of the MPSF Championship and had to go to double overtime without some key players to claim the crown.
“We’ve been through a lot and that’s been great,” Wright said. “It was a fantastic thing to not play with crucial players at the end of that game.”
It was the first time the Bruins had won the conference championship since 2011.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment, we know that,” Wright said. “Cal and USC are good teams and we have a deep respect for them.”
As impressive as those feats are, they are in the rear view mirror Wright said.
“One of the nice parts is we can let go of all this,” Wright said. “We appreciate it, but it’s almost like a weight is gone. We have a total reset now and it’s like saying now is a new season.”
A two-game season that Wright and his team hopes will end with a successful defense of their championship.