By Esther Hui
Daily Bruin Senior Staff
The UCLA men’s water polo team proved they are in contention for a national championship last weekend, placing third at the Northern California Tournament at Stanford, and beating No. 3 California along the way for the first time since 1991.
The Bruins (10-4 overall, 1-1 in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) beat No. 4 University of Pacific 11-6, Davis 17-9, and California 12-10 in the two-day tournament, and lost a close match to top-ranked defending national champion Stanford, 13-12, in the semi-finals.
“We wanted to make a statement that we were a force to be reckoned with,” UCLA assistant coach Matt Emerzian said. “We really showed that instead of always hunting, we are the team to be hunted.”
The Bruins’ Saturday morning win over UOP set an aggressive tone for the rest of the tournament as UCLA scored three points within the first few minutes, and never let the Tigers back into the game. The Bruins converted seven out of 12 man-up situations while Pacific converted just two out of 11.
Jeremy Braxton-Brown scored three points and Adam Krikorian and Mark Sutter scored two apiece.
The victory was also aided by 12 saves from goalkeeper Matt Swanson, who missed practice all last week because of a groin injury.
“We came out hard against UOP,” Swanson said. “It was three or four to nothing within the first few minutes and it gave us a lot of confidence. We knew we had to win that game.”
Due to scheduling conflicts, the Bruins faced Davis Saturday afternoon in a 25-yard pool rather than the regulation 30-meters. Freshman Luther Weidner led the Bruins with six goals while the starters were given a break.
With two wins behind them, the Bruins began the second day of competition in the semi-finals, playing No. 1 Stanford – a team unbeaten by UCLA in over three years.
The Bruins remained within striking distance throughout most of the first half, but with Stanford leading 5-4 toward the end of the first half, the Cardinal capitalized on a steal with a two-point shot.
A second mistake occurred in the fourth quarter when Stanford stole the ball from UCLA during a fast break, and the resulting goal put Stanford ahead at 12-11.
“We shouldn’t be making those kinds of mistakes,” UCLA head coach Guy Baker said. “I know they happen, but it’s something we can work on before we play (Stanford) on Thursday.”
Stanford scored again with two minutes remaining to put the score at 13-11, but the Bruins were unable to make the necessary two-point shot to tie the game. They did, however, manage a one-point goal, ending the game one point away from a tie with the defending national champions.
“Stanford was a good game for everyone, and it was the most confident we’ve played in a long time,” junior driver Tommy Wong said. “The game could have gone either way, and it just so happened that (Stanford) was ahead when the clock stopped.”
Most players express confidence that correcting the slight errors they made playing against Stanford could make the difference in the rematch on Thursday.
“It’s not Stanford that’s beating us,” Swanson said. “We’re beating ourselves. We have no fear of Stanford.”
The most grueling match of the four-game tournament came in the third-place contest against arch-rival California. The Bruins battled fatigue and a rough start, but led by senior driver Scott Turner’s four goals, overcame a 7-6 half-time deficit to beat Cal 12-10 for only the second time in six years.
“The last game of the tournament is always the hardest,” Turner said. “We weren’t playing well the first half and then Guy sat us down and gave us a talk. We pulled together at the right time. We still have a lot to work on, but it was a good all-around victory.
“In order to keep the No. 4 seeding, we need to keep knocking guys below us down and attacking the guys above us. We did both during this tournament.”
“The feeling was indescribable,” Emerzian said of the win.