Sunday, July 21

Women’s water polo must rely on youth in quest to rebuild program’s strength

Despite the departures of coach Adam Krikorian and four seniors, the UCLA women's water polo team will look to win a sixth straight national championship.

Despite the departures of coach Adam Krikorian and four seniors, the UCLA women's water polo team will look to win a sixth straight national championship. Daily Bruin file photo

After winning an unprecedented five consecutive national championships and establishing their very own collegiate dynasty, the UCLA women’s water polo team suddenly finds itself in unfamiliar territory. Not only are they starting their first season without former coach Adam Krikorian, but they are also without a single senior on the team.

While new coach Brandon Brooks admits this team is more inexperienced than in previous years, he believes that they can find a way to overcome that lack of veteran leadership.

“The biggest weakness we have is probably youth ““ we have no seniors,” Brooks said. “We have girls that are fairly experienced, but we still have a lot of youth. With that, usually come big ups and downs, emotion and energy. So we need to just overcome that and be consistent.”

As an assistant coach for the women’s team the last three years, Brooks asserted that he is ready for the challenge of being a coach and has learned a lot from the coaches he has worked under, including Krikorian, Adam Wright and Matt Flesher.

“So far it’s been great,” Brooks said. “It’s definitely been a change of pace and required a lot of hours, but it’s work that I love and I’m happy to be doing it. My biggest challenge is to make sure that practice is as hard as it’s always been here and these girls are competitive ““ to get them to improve every week, if not every day.”

With the graduation of top senior scorers Anne Belden, Tanya Gandy and Katie Rulon, and goalkeeper Brittany Fullen, the Bruins will look to their large group of underclassmen to rise to the challenge.

“We need to have a good year from our goalkeeper, Caitlin Dement,” Brooks said. “She’s in her second year of school and this is her first time starting.”

Brooks also expects strong performances from the junior class ““ especially from attacker Priscilla Orozco and defenders Kelly Easterday, Megan Burmeister and junior transfer Grace Reynolds.

In addition, sophomore center Sarah Orozco and utility KK Clark are being counted on to register second consecutive productive seasons.

As they face the lofty expectations of being the five-time defending champions, the Bruins prepared by undergoing a rigorous workout regimen.

“The practices have been really hard, but the month of January is usually always hard,” junior utility Monica Powers said. “We call it hell month. It’s mostly swimming and conditioning, to get us back into shape.”

In addition to improving their fitness, the Bruins are also concentrating on refining their weak points and making appropriate adjustments to their game.

“We’ve always had a core group of seniors with experience playing for a national championship,” Powers said. “However, the main difference is that we don’t have as strong of shooters as the previous years. So this year we’re going to really focus on having the best defense in the country and that’s going to ultimately help us win some big games.”

At the same time, the players know that they enter the season with many other teams looking to break their streak of dominance in the sport. UCLA entered the season as the nation’s third-ranked team but has already lost three times in their first eight games.

“There’s been a great tradition of success here, but the pressure, the expectations, and what we have to prove ““ those are from the outside,” Brooks said. “Obviously, we’re competitive here. We want to win. We want to be the best, but we’ve got to focus on ourselves, and keep our heads down. We need to take everything one day at a time and see where we are when we look up.”

For this young team, the new season can be summed up in one word: belief.

“I think every year we believe we can win a national championship,” Powers said. “It just depends on how well we work together as a team. If we believe in ourselves, we can show that we are capable of doing it. Even though our team is young, we have a good bunch of girls.”

It is this hope and belief resonating throughout the locker room that Brooks sees as his team’s ultimate backbone.

“The team’s strength is our belief in each other, hard work ethic and tradition,” he said.

The players’ confidence in each other is already allowing the team to make great strides in terms of team chemistry, especially when it comes to incorporating the freshmen.

“The freshmen have been doing really well in terms of giving 100 percent at practice and understanding what it takes to be a Bruin,” Powers said. “They bond just as well with the juniors and sophomores.”

The success of being a five-time champion speaks for itself; the Bruins were able to lure one of the nation’s top recruiting classes as they look to re-stock the program with young talent.

“I chose to come here for water polo because I have always loved the way UCLA represented themselves as a team,” freshman utility Emily Greenwood said. “They always seemed so close, like a family.”

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