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Men’s water polo heads to NCAA championship

Redshirt senior attacker Scott Davidson holds the ball during a loss to Cal on Oct. 16.

Redshirt senior attacker Scott Davidson holds the ball during a loss to Cal on Oct. 16. Kimberly Lajcik

Despite being held almost 3,000 miles from Southern California, the NCAA men’s water polo championships this weekend will have a distinct Los Angeles flavor.

Three of the teams that qualified for the Final Four in Princeton, N.J. are from the L.A. area: UCLA, Loyola Marymount and USC. UCLA and Loyola Marymount each won its conference tournament, while USC qualified as an at-large. The fourth team in the bracket, Princeton, also won its conference tournament and will get the chance to play for the championship in its home pool

Having earned the second seed, UCLA will face third-seeded Loyola Marymount in a semifinal match on Saturday. It will mark the third meeting of the season between the Bruins and the Lions, with UCLA having won the first game by four goals and the second by five. A win in the semifinals would set up a potential rematch with USC in the championship game on Sunday.

“Things in the national tournament are definitely up in the air,” UCLA junior attacker Ben Hohl said. “We know that we’re good enough to beat ‘SC, but we also can’t overlook anyone.”

UCLA qualified for the Final Four by putting together an impressive run in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament that saw it defeat USC in the semifinals and California in the championship to earn the conference’s automatic bid.

A possible showdown in the title game between UCLA and USC would be the fifth meeting of the season for the rivals, and also the rubber match: Each team has won two of the matchups thus far, with the Bruins’ wins accounting for the only blemishes on the Trojans’ record. And despite the UCLA victory in the MPSF playoffs, the Trojans will still have a large target on their backs.

“USC will be the favorite. They’ve got the experience and they’ve done this before last year,” UCLA coach Adam Wright said. “We look at it as that they’ve been the No. 1 team all year, and they’ll still be the team to beat.”

While USC will look to defend its title, the Bruins are playing in the season’s final weekend for the first time since 2004, when they beat Stanford in overtime to win the championship. But UCLA is far from satisfied with merely a chance to play for all the marbles.

“We’re all really excited to be getting the chance to play for the national tournament,” Hohl said. “We want to go out there to Princeton and see what we can do at the next level of competition.”

And while Loyola Marymount will be no easy task in the semis and USC remains a formidable obstacle, the Bruins are entering the weekend with the mentality that they can win it all.

“At this point, every game is tough,” Wright said. “But we have to have the confidence that we can get the job done.”

The final chapter

In a rewarding end to a productive season, captain Scott Davidson was named the MPSF Player of the Year on Tuesday. The redshirt senior leads the team in scoring this season with 42 goals, an output that has vaulted him into fifth on the UCLA all-time scoring list with 147 career goals.

His award is just one of the many postseason accolades for UCLA. In addition, Hohl and redshirt senior goalkeeper Chay Lapin were both named second-team all-MPSF performers, while redshirt sophomore attacker Cullen Hennessy earned honorable mention all-MPSF honors.

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