Adam Wright had a simple message for the UCLA men’s water polo team as it arrived on campus Thursday: Don’t listen to outside opinions.
Wright, starting his second year as coach of the program, was back on the pool deck Friday at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center for the team’s first official practice of the season. The polls don’t see a drop-off in 2010 for the 2009 NCAA runner-up Bruins ““ both the national and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation preseason polls have them slotted at No. 2, behind MPSF conference-mate Cal ““ but Wright knows that numbers like that are trivial, at best.
“You can’t look into that much,” he said. “I told the guys yesterday in our first meeting that there’s going to be a lot of outside people that have a lot of things to say, but we can’t let them affect the group.”
Friday’s practice, 22 days before the team’s season opener against Concordia on Sept. 11 at Spieker Aquatics Center, marked the beginning of what is sure to be a trying season for a team that has national championship aspirations.
Not that the team won’t hit the ground running. UCLA operates as a club water polo team during the summer, traveling to different tournaments across the state. While summer training focused on game play, the first official practice was simply conditioning and fundamentals, both vital for the arduous MPSF season.
“We tried to work on tactics a lot this summer, but right now we’re just getting in shape, so when the season starts we can just kind of run with it and just stay fit,” sophomore utility Josh Samuels said. “Right now we’re just going to put us in the best shape we can be in for the next two or three weeks or so.”
Blue and gold in red, white and blue
Several current Bruins represented the U.S. in international water polo competitions throughout the summer.
Senior attacker Ben Hohl and redshirt senior center Jacob Murphy both played for the men’s senior national team alongside a very familiar face: their college coach. Wright, who starred at UCLA and graduated in 2001, has played for the national team for more than a decade now and didn’t stop when he was named coach at UCLA. The U.S. finished fourth at the FINA World Cup, held in Romania July 27 through Aug. 1.
“We’re teammates, and honestly, for me, it’s a pleasure to have those guys there because it’s only going to help our program here ““ those guys playing at a higher level,” Wright said.
The U.S. junior national team had almost a full starting lineup of UCLA products at the UANA Junior Pan American Championships in Pinecrest, Fla. Samuels captained the team while sophomore attackers Griffin White and Bret Lathrope and redshirt freshman utility Chris Wendt also saw heavy minutes.
While the loss to USC in last year’s national championship game is still fresh in the minds of the team, another tough loss was on the mind of Samuels on Friday: the 9-8 overtime defeat the U.S. suffered to Canada in the finals of the Pan-Am championships Aug. 16, which he called one of the worst losses of his life.
“We’re swimming today, and I was just really pissed about the last loss against Canada, really,” Samuels said. “I got into a really angry groove, and I just crushed the swim set.”
Forty players filled the pool on Friday, but the two practicing over by the lone net in the corner of the pool ““ redshirt junior Andrew Mesesan and redshirt sophomore Matt Rapacz ““ are already in the midst of a battle for the starting goalkeeper spot. Wright said the competition is wide open.
“To be honest, from what I saw over the last weekend when I came back, they’re even,” Wright said. “That’s going to be a position that’s an important piece ““ that’s your last line of defense ““ but I also believe that as a team we have to get better defensively, to help those guys because they haven’t played.”
The winner of the job will have the not-so-envious task of replacing Chay Lapin, who played in all 28 games last year and broke the school’s career saves record.