ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Before the season even was underway, the Bruins were expected to win the national championship.
The water polo community was anointing them as the best team ever. With 17 national team members, three of whom are Olympians, many said winning the title was going to be a breeze.
But by the time UCLA women’s water polo coach Adam Krikorian dove into the pool following his team’s 3-2 victory over No. 3 Stanford in the NCAA finals on Sunday, the narrow margin of victory didn’t matter.
The Bruins, who finished the season undefeated, had done what they had set out to do.
“I told these girls that I think this is the greatest team to play college water polo,” Krikorian said. “Now I’ll come out and say that even though I haven’t said that all year.”
The top-ranked Bruins earned their third national title in five seasons, all of which came at the expense of Stanford. And in each of the three championship runs, there was one player there to push UCLA (33-0) to victory.
This year, it was senior Natalie Golda, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and ended her career just the way she started it – with a championship.
After the game, what stood out most in Golda’s mind was the difficult path to winning the title amid all the hoopla surrounding the team.
“I’m stunned in disbelief because this entire season, I felt a lot of pressure from a lot of directions, and to be put in charge of such an amazing team as the team captain was pretty difficult,” said Golda, who scored four goals during the weekend and finishes her career third in all-time goals scored in UCLA history with 158.
“I’m so proud of everyone on this team because we went through so much. We proved our grit and how badly we wanted this title because it could have easily been taken away from us.”
Just after the final second ticked off her collegiate career, Golda swam over to goalie Emily Feher and whispered a few words into her ear as they embraced. Feher shut out Stanford (22-7) in the first half and had seven saves in the game.
“I told her she’s ‘nails,’” Golda said. “She kept us in this game. Point-blank range she just stuck them. I told her she’s the best goalie in this country, and I have a lot of pride to say she’s my goalie and I know that I don’t have to turn my back to know that she stopped it.”
Making her first NCAA Championship appearance, Feher looked sharp early, recording five saves in the first period. After losing to the Cardinal in the conference playoffs last year to end her season, Feher was one of the few that held back tears and instead beamed with jubilation.
“It’s the best feeling that I’ve ever had,” said Feher, who held Stanford scoreless until midway through the third period. “I never imagined I would be able to get an NCAA championship with a team that I love.”
And while the Bruins had difficulty scoring as well, it quickly became apparent that both teams’ defenses dictated the sluggish pace of play. The Bruins finished just 1-for-6 on their one-player-advantage opportunities, while Stanford was 0-for-5.
While Golda’s goal in the first period proved to be vital, it was Bruin freshman Brittany Rowe’s offense that paced UCLA to victory.
The freshman utility player powered in her first goal at two meters away with two defenders draped over her shoulders. In the fourth quarter, she scored her second goal to give the Bruins a 3-1 lead.
“The game was a little scary,” Rowe said. “But I thought we could win because our girls played amazing defense.”
Though Stanford did pull to within one goal with just 4:12 left in the game, the Bruins’ perimeter defense, particularly that of Golda and junior Thalia Munro, came up huge again in the final minutes, swatting down several of the Cardinal’s outside shots to preserve the win.
“We showed a lot of heart and character,” Krikorian said. “To go through this whole year and not have many close games, maybe one or two, and to get into a close pressure-packed situation, in this type of environment and for the girls to show this type of character, is great.”
Great enough to win the national championship. Great enough for their coach to acknowledge them as the best team ever. Great enough to fulfill everyone’s expectations, especially their own.