Brandon Brooks has come a long way in his first year as the coach of the UCLA women’s water polo team.

The one-time star goalkeeper and two-time NCAA champion with the UCLA men’s water polo team has gone from player, to assistant coach, to coach ““ all in the span of five years.

Coming off a weekend that saw him lead the Bruins to a highly improbable Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament title ““ a moment he described as “surreal” ““ there’s no doubting that Brooks has a bright future as a coach.

But if you would have talked to him just a few years ago, even he wouldn’t have expected to be where he is now.

It wasn’t until a conversation with long-time softball coach Sue Enquist that Brooks gave heading a program any serious thought.

“I told her that I think I’m a lifelong assistant and she said “˜Well, wait a minute; I could see you being a good head coach,’” Brooks said. “That’s the first time I really thought about it.”

In June 2009, Brooks was handed the reins to the most prestigious program in NCAA women’s water polo history. Adam Krikorian ““ for whom Brooks was an assistant for three years ““ had just led UCLA to its fifth straight national championship, its seventh in nine years. Brooks’ job was to continue the storied legacy.

Things didn’t start off so well, though. The young team devoid of a senior struggled early and had somewhat of a tumultuous season.

Early losses to San Diego State and Cal were tough to swallow. For every high, such as the 7-6 win over the Golden Bears on Feb. 28 in eight overtimes, the longest game in NCAA history, there was a low, such as a 9-8 loss at Hawai’i in six overtimes, just six days later on March 6. Their seven losses were the most a UCLA team has had since women’s water polo became an NCAA sport in 2001.

Yet here Brooks is, preparing his team for play as the No. 3 overallseed in the NCAA Tournament next week after the fifth-seeded Bruins came out of nowhere to win the MPSF Tournament. He has the team believing and the water polo world talking about UCLA as a championship contender once again.

The impact of Brooks’ coaching is probably best seen in sophomore Caitlin Dement, who led the Bruins in her first year as the starting goalkeeper with stellar defense by posting 22 saves in back-to-back victories over No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 USC this past weekend.

Dement said she has learned a lot from the man that patrolled the cage as a member of USA men’s water polo in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics.

“When I came here, I thought “˜Goalie’s easy, I’ve been playing it for six years, there’s nothing more ““ you can’t change the way you lunge or anything,’” Dement said. “He completely changed my playing style, and it’s better; its helped me in the long run.”

As for his coaching style, Brooks stresses the simplicity of the game, and how important it is to work hard and have fun at the same time. While he may not share the fiery attitude of his predecessor, his players will attest that he gets his point across every single time.

“He’s very calm and collected when he talks to you,” said junior Grace Reynolds, who leads the team with 37 goals on the year. “He’s good at keeping his composure and it’s helpful. … He’s probably one of the best coaches that I’ve ever played for.”

There’s definitely no mistaking the past and present coaches of UCLA women’s water polo. The 6-foot-6-inch Brooks, who played for Steve Lavin on the men’s basketball team for one year while at UCLA, is always cracking jokes and getting laughs out of his players.

Ask him about his team’s defense and he might start out by saying, “Well, our starting goalie’s kind of a bum,” while she’s within earshot. That easy-going personality didn’t stop him from getting in some trouble with the referees during the MPSF Tournament, though, when he was handed two yellow cards.

“I think those were his first two all year,” said Reynolds. “That was pretty cool. It’s not funny, but it’s really cool to see him get all intense.”

“He’s got our back,” added Dement.

The No. 3 Bruins’ attention has shifted to the NCAA Tournament, to be held March 14-16 at the Aztec Aquaplex at San Diego State, where they will play No. 6 Loyola Marymount in the quarterfinals. In Brooks’ eyes, making the Tournament, something that was in doubt during the season, is a big achievement for the team, which will look for its sixth straight national title.

“We’ve accomplished our goal of getting to NCAAs and we’re for the most part pretty healthy, so we’ve got a shot, that’s all you ask for,” he said.

“I wouldn’t have asked for (the past year) to be any other way,” Brooks added. “I wouldn’t want things to be easy. I have a great group of girls, and I’m very happy.”

“He knows what he’s doing,” Reynolds said. “He’s growing and we’re growing, and it’s good to see him and us growing together.”