Wednesday, November 13

UCLA men’s water polo earns bid to NCAA Final Four

Ben Hohl led the Bruins this weekend with nine goals in three games at the MPSF Tournament. UCLA won the tournament, earning an automatic bid to the NCAAs.

Ben Hohl led the Bruins this weekend with nine goals in three games at the MPSF Tournament. UCLA won the tournament, earning an automatic bid to the NCAAs. Maya Sugarman

It would require three straight wins, including one over the best team in the country in its home pool and one over arguably the nation’s hottest team in the championship match, for the UCLA men’s water polo team to qualify for this weekend’s national tournament.

Consider it a done deal.

In a memorable weekend at USC’s McDonald’s Swim Stadium, the Bruins won the 2009 MPSF Tournament to earn an automatic bid for the NCAA Final Four to take place Saturday and Sunday in Princeton, N.J. The victories were by no means easy: No. 4 UCLA defeated No. 5 Pepperdine, No. 1 USC and No. 3 California in advancing beyond the conference tournament for the first time since 2004.

The Bruins earned the second seed in the national bracket and will play Loyola Marymount in the national semifinals on Saturday.

“It’s big for this team, for this program,” UCLA coach Adam Wright said. “This is a team that should always be fighting for championships and for Final Fours.”

The UCLA attack was led all weekend by junior Ben Hohl, who led the Bruins with three goals against Pepperdine and four against USC, while his two-goal performance against Cal was second only to teammate freshman utility Josh Samuels’ three tallies.

Hohl credited his team’s late-season success to its rigorous training regimen that prepared them physically for the postseason stretch.

“We kept our conditioning hard all year, while some of the other teams tapered off,” Hohl said. “We kept on going full steam the entire season knowing that we would need to win the conference tournament to be able to qualify for NCAAs. We were in much better shape than the other teams.”

Additionally, the training schedule allowed the Bruins to develop into a team that was strong mentally and emotionally.

“Everyone on our team really stepped up,” Wright said. “We had guys go down with injuries and get ejected, but our composure was great, and we didn’t get rattled. The last several weeks we really matured.”

The championship showdown with the Golden Bears was a defensive struggle early, with each team registering just three goals in the first half. However, in what was a trend throughout the weekend, UCLA pulled away in the second half for a 10-7 victory that ended Cal’s season.

Despite the obvious importance of the title match, Saturday’s semifinal game against the Trojans might have been the game of the year for UCLA. The Bruins found themselves down 2-0 in the first quarter but responded with a huge run to go up 5-3 heading into halftime. USC trimmed the lead to one heading into the final stanza, but the Bruins’ defense, led by redshirt senior goalkeeper Chay Lapin, held the Trojans scoreless in the fourth quarter to pull away for a 10-6 triumph.

The semifinal win came exactly three weeks after UCLA lost a one-goal heartbreaker to its crosstown rivals in a regular season game at Spieker Aquatics Center. Because of their regular season record and their victory over Stanford in Sunday’s consolation game, the Trojans earned the at-large bid and top seed for the Final Four.

UCLA came out of the gates a bit sluggish in Friday’s opening match against Pepperdine, going scoreless in the first quarter. However, the Bruins held the Waves scoreless as well and eventually built a 4-1 halftime lead before securing an 8-5 victory.

“We really played as one unit all weekend, with great team chemistry,” Hohl said. “Teams like USC and Cal tend to play around individuals, while we did a good job of keeping together as a team.”

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