When the UCLA women’s water polo team departs for the NCAA Championships today, it will be a familiar feeling for many of them. Nearly all of the team’s starters have the experience of at least one national championship under their belts ““ with one notable exception.
Center Grace Reynolds, who transferred to UCLA last year, is the sole senior to have missed out on both championship seasons. In typical Reynolds fashion, however, she has found the bright side.
“These girls know what it’s like to win a championship, and that’s good because they want that feeling,” she said. “But then there’s girls that don’t know what it’s like and we want to have that feeling so bad. We’ll do anything to get it.”
This trademark optimism and determination is what has allowed Reynolds to become an integral part of the team in her two seasons as a Bruin.
“She fits in perfectly because she likes to mess around and have fun, but she’s serious at the same time,” senior attacker Noel Umphrey said. “She’s really good at what she does, and it kind of completed our team.”
The bond between Reynolds and Umphrey is deeper than most ““ the pair began playing together at age 11 and continued to play together until Reynolds headed north to play for California.
But dissatisfaction with her playing experience as a Golden Bear made her hungry for a change. After two years she transferred to Golden West College in Huntington Beach, and spent that time considering her next move.
“It was a difficult decision, but I kind of knew that UCLA was where I wanted to be,” Reynolds said.
When newly appointed coach Brandon Brooks offered her a spot on the UCLA team, she accepted immediately.
“We had talked on the phone, and I had seen him coach,” she said. “I had complete faith that he was going to be able to take us the furthest.”
Brooks, who had just stepped up to fill the shoes of legendary coach Adam Krikorian, knew that her power, intelligence and skill set ““ Reynolds is ambidextrous and easily shoots with either hand ““ would be the perfect element to complete his offensive squad.
“We needed a center and she needed a school, and all around it was just a great fit,” he said. “Water polo-wise, she’s really unselfish, she’s very team-oriented and she’s a very smart water polo player.”
Even more promising for Brooks was Reynolds’ strong family history in the sport: Older brother Frank is a senior standout at Cal, younger brother Greg will play for UCLA next year and father Ed serves as a member of USA Water Polo’s Board of Directors.
“She was looking for a school a couple of years ago, so I went down and did a home visit in Tustin,” Brooks said. “Her family was gracious enough to have me over for dinner to talk about her future at UCLA ““ she comes from a great family and she’s been around water polo all her life.”
While this lifetime of experience has translated into immediate success in the pool ““ Reynolds scored 43 goals in her first season as a Bruin, making her the team’s top scorer ““ her experience out of the pool was slightly tougher.
“It was difficult because we weren’t living in dorms,” she said of being a transfer student. “You go through your freshman year and your sophomore year and you have those friendships and it’s just that bond like nothing else.”
Reynolds’ initial struggle to find her place, combined with the challenges of a newly appointed head coach and a senior-less team full of youth, kept the Bruins from the success they had become familiar with. The team, which entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed, dropped their first-round matchup against No. 6 Loyola Marymount, ending their hopes of a sixth consecutive national title.
“I just don’t think we had that connection,” Reynolds said of last season. “Over the past year and a half we’ve grown so much, and it’s benefitting us because now we have that flow in the game where we all know what each other wants.”
One season later, that bond is finally beginning to show. Several recent victories ““ including wins over rival USC and previously undefeated Stanford in last week’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships ““ speak to the Bruins’ increased ability to play as a team.
“It’s all just eye contact and a shake of the head,” she explained of her team’s intuitive communication in the pool.
The team cohesion will be put to the ultimate test this weekend, when the Bruins face the nation’s top teams in an attempt to regain their NCAA crown. For Brooks, all the elements of success are there, and Reynolds is high among them.
“She draws a lot of attention anywhere she goes in the pool,” he said. “If we’re going to be successful at NCAAs, she’s going to be a big part of that success.”