For the UCLA men’s water polo team, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament will be about erasing memories of struggle. But the Bruins do have the memories of last year’s tournament run to fall back on.
In 2009, they entered the conference tournament as the fourth seed, knowing the only way to get to the NCAA Tournament was to win the conference tournament. Three days and three wins ““ over Pepperdine, USC and California ““ later, the Bruins were bound for Princeton, N.J.
It’s far from ideal, but UCLA sits in almost the exact same position today. After a year with a few stumbles, the Bruins have the third seed, and the likely teams to beat are Pacific, USC and Cal.
But this year is already shaping up to be tougher than the last. UCLA (18-4, 6-2 MPSF) will first face fifth-seeded Pacific to open MPSF Tournament play Friday at Stanford’s Avery Aquatics Complex.
It’s a desperate situation, but after two weeks of practices without a game, everybody seems to feel ready.
“We’ve been working over the past couple of weeks on playing together, more as a team, and working for each other ““ that’s something we lost along the way,” redshirt senior center Jacob Murphy said.
The Bruins will get the Tigers (16-9, 4-4) while they’re still hot. Pacific won four of its last five, including an upset over Stanford on Nov. 14. The water polo world noticed, as seen in the latest Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings, which has the Tigers at No. 4.
“It’s a good thing to be tested on the first day,” coach Adam Wright said. “If we can get through that, I think that will only be helpful in the days to follow.”
What might be hardest is looking ahead to a potential semifinal match against USC.
Senior attacker Ben Hohl remembers his freshman year, when UCLA might have been caught looking ahead and fell to UC Irvine in the first round of the MPSF Tournament, dashing all hopes of reaching the NCAAs.
“I definitely don’t want that to happen for my last tournament,” Hohl said. “We’re not looking ahead. It’s UOP, and then after the game, and hopefully with a win, we’ll start looking on to ‘SC.”
What might be a little fonder to remember was how Hohl took over at MPSFs last year. Then a junior, he went off for nine goals in three games, almost single-handedly leading the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament.
But as Murphy, the team captain, knows, sloppy individual play has doomed this team throughout the year.
“We’re all going to need to step up, but it’s going to take more than one of us; it’s got to be a group effort,” Murphy said.
If the Bruins can make it past the Tigers, the road gets exponentially tougher in the next two rounds. Cal (21-2, 8-0) and USC (23-2, 6-2) sit atop the MPSF, two teams UCLA has gone a combined 0-3 against this year.
In those three matchups, a laundry list of things have gone wrong for the Bruins. As Wright tells it, the key to this weekend is putting together a complete game.
“Everybody’s got to up their game,” Wright said. “We have to win three games. We’ve yet to play (a game) this year where everybody’s on top of their game.
“Every player’s going to have to rise to the occasion.”