Three wins away from a fifth consecutive national championship, the UCLA women’s water polo team finds itself in a familiar position ““ looking up at USC and Stanford.

Three has been the operative number for the Bruins this year, because they have finished both the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular season and the playoffs in that position behind the Trojans and Cardinal. In this weekend’s national tournament at the University of Maryland, the Bruins are also the No. 3 seed.

The Bruins (22-6, 5-2 MPSF) open play today against No. 6 seed Michigan (33-8, 6-0 College Water Polo Association Eastern Division), a team they beat 10-4 nearly four months ago at a season-opening tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich. With that game so far in the rearview mirror, the Bruins know they cannot expect a similarly easy victory this time around.

“Teams change so much throughout the course of a season,” coach Adam Krikorian said. “We have obviously improved leaps and bounds over the last few months, but so have they. Their record speaks for itself, and they won their conference fairly easily. It’ll be a battle.”

Michigan will rely on momentum to be a significant factor in the rematch ““ the Wolverines are on a 25-game winning streak and haven’t lost since late February.

The Bruins, however, lost their final two games of the regular season to Stanford and USC before falling again to the Cardinal in the conference semifinals. In each of these losses, one goal was the difference. Should UCLA defeat Michigan, Stanford would likely be the Bruins’ second-round opponent on Saturday.

“We don’t want to look ahead, but if we can win our first game we know Stanford is looming,” freshman utility KK Clark said. “Our two teams have played a couple of incredible games down the stretch, and it would be great to get another shot at them to advance to the finals.”

The tournament format is similar to that of a midseason invitational or the conference postseason, but Krikorian thinks there is a different mindset when a national championship is at stake.

“This will be almost opposite of what we do at other tournaments,” Krikorian said. “We’ve already seen all our potential matchups, and no more scouting is really necessary. This weekend is all about ourselves and executing to the best of our potential to put together a championship run.”

If that run is completed, the Bruins will win their fifth consecutive title under Krikorian, who is stepping down at the conclusion of the season to take the reins of the U.S. women’s water polo program. To win one last trophy, Krikorian will need continued production from his quartet of seniors who have anchored the team all year long.

While senior goalkeeper Brittany Fullen has led the defense from between the pipes, senior attackers Tanya Gandy, Katie Rulon and Anne Belden were the team’s top three scorers throughout the regular season and MPSF playoffs.

Gandy, recently named one of three finalists for the Peter J. Cutino award given to the best water polo player in the country, tallied 70 goals to move into second place on UCLA’s all-time single-season scoring list.

With the finals being held in College Park, Md., this year will mark the first time that any of the players have played in a national tournament match outside of California.

“Playing on the East Coast will definitely be an amazing experience,” Clark said. “I’ve never been there before, and I know that we can’t wait to give those fans out there a chance to watch us play for a championship. It’s hard to put into words, I’m just so excited to get out there.”