The walls around the UCLA dynasty didn’t exactly come crumbling down in 2010, but the year proved that, for the first time in a long time, the Bruin women’s water polo team was mortal.
The warning signs were there early ““ uncharacteristic losses plagued the young Bruins throughout the season and had them wondering if they would even qualify for the NCAA Tournament, something that was never in question during their run of five straight championships from 2005 to 2009.
But the reality came in May, when UCLA was ousted from the tournament after a 5-4 loss to Loyola Marymount, and the title streak came to a halt.
Eight months later, the Bruins are back in the pool, with that loss to LMU still fresh in the minds of everyone looking to get UCLA back to its winning ways.
“Even though it was so long ago, we’re still using it as incentive, and not taking any team for granted,” senior center Grace Reynolds said.
UCLA comes into the 2011 season markedly more composed after an up-and-down 2010 that was unlike any season in the history of the most successful women’s water polo program in the nation. That team featured no seniors and 10 freshmen, and looked as if it was going through growing pains throughout the year.
They still showed flashes of greatness, peaking during the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament and taking home the conference championship. But after the loss to LMU two weeks later, even coach Brandon Brooks admitted his team was “about halfway” to its potential.
There might have been a silver lining in having a group so young, though it doesn’t manifest itself until this year: Every key contributor who was there for the struggles in 2010 is back in 2011 ““ including eight seniors.
“There’s stability,” said Brooks, now in his second year as coach. “More so, I think it’s an emotional stability that’s there more often.”
The Bruins kicked off the year with a 4-0 start at the Michigan Kick-Off last weekend, something they weren’t able to do a year ago when they traveled to Michigan and lost to a lower-ranked San Diego State team.
Of the four games in Michigan, one was a nail-biting 6-5 win over host Michigan. In that game, the Bruins took a three-goal lead going into halftime but promptly allowed the Wolverines to tie the game back up. It took a late goal to eke out a win, but junior goalkeeper Caitlin Dement said that was enough for her to notice something is different already this year.
“I feel like last year’s team would have folded under the pressure of having them come back,” said Dement. “But this year, we’re a lot more confident, have a lot more composure ““ we’re a lot stronger altogether.”
As the Bruins open up their home schedule Saturday against Long Beach State, Brooks has his starters set ““ senior defender Megan Burmeister, senior attackers Noel Umphrey and Priscilla Orozco, junior utilities Sarah Orozco and KK Clark, Reynolds at set and Dement in goal ““ but said that the greatest strength of this team might be its depth.
“It’s going to help in practice, having the top group go against a really good group,” Brooks said. “In some years past, there’s the top nine, they go against the next nine and kill them. This year … I can make two even teams that I think are two of the better teams in the country.”
“Not a lot of teams can go deep into their bench when it comes to the games, and we can,” Reynolds added.
Preseason rankings had the Bruins slotted at No. 4 nationally ““ behind MPSF foes Stanford, USC and Hawai’i. It’s not something Brooks talks about with his team, but it doesn’t sit well with one Bruin.
After all, if the Bruins want to rebuild the dynasty that was set up by former coach Adam Krikorian, they will have to climb the ladder to get back to No. 1.
“I looked at (the ranking). I haven’t told anyone yet, but I looked at it. I think it’s terrible,” said Reynolds, the team’s leading scorer with 43 goals last year. “I think it’s just more incentive to say, “˜Screw ‘em all’ and just get to the top.”