The last time the UCLA men’s water polo team was in the season-ending national tournament, they were hoisting the championship trophy in 2004. Since then, the program has been unable to make enough of a run in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation playoffs to qualify for the NCAA tournament and get a shot at another title.

With the MPSF playoffs this weekend, the Bruins feel that this year they have the necessary combination of talent and swagger to make it through the nation’s toughest conference tournament.

“If we play our best, (beating any team) can happen on any given night,” junior attacker Ben Hohl said.

The road to Princeton, N.J. for the national tournament will be anything but easy: UCLA is seeded fourth in the MPSF tournament, and must make the conference championship game in order to gain an automatic NCAA berth. The Bruins open with fifth-seeded Pepperdine on Friday at USC, where the conference tournament will be held this year.

In an effort to gear up for the playoffs, first-year coach Adam Wright instituted a rigorous practice regimen this past month that he felt would adequately get his team ready to go.

“The last four weeks have been loaded, they’ve been training really hard,” Wright said. “My goal was also to build them mentally. At the end of the game, you still have to have your brains.”

UCLA faced Pepperdine once this season, defeating the Waves 9-6 in Malibu on Halloween night. Should the Bruins win the rematch on Friday, they will likely draw No. 1 USC on Saturday in what would be the fourth showdown in an already epic series this season. A UCLA win in the semifinals would put the team in the championship against presumably Stanford or California, the second and third seeds, respectively.

Each of UCLA’s six losses this season occurred at the hands of one of the three teams seeded higher than the Bruins. With those six defeats coming by a total of seven goals, it is no wonder that the team is brimming with optimism heading into the postseason.

“We should have confidence, because our training has picked up and we’ve played the top teams in the country even,” Wright said. “From a mind-set standpoint, every time we play someone we have to know that we can beat them.”

In terms of execution, the Bruins plan on relying on the side of the ball that has been their bread and butter all season long.

“Our defense is our number one focus, it’s our strength,” Hohl said. “We also know that in the course of games things usually come down to 6-on-5 play so that’s something that we’ve got to focus in on if we want to have a deep playoff run.”

That deep playoff run has eluded the UCLA program since their last national championship almost five years ago.

But before they can play for all the marbles in Princeton, they have to take care of business within their own conference. As an underdog to make the MPSF finals and qualify for nationals, the Bruins feel that the chip on their shoulder could be a valuable asset.

“It’s definitely a motivating factor having come up short in the playoffs the last couple of seasons,” Hohl said. “We feel like we’re one of the better teams.”