Now, everyone starts over. No more thinking about the 20-4 record that the men’s water polo team carried through the season. No more worrying about the standings, or the seedings or the rankings. This weekend, all the slates are erased as eight teams battle for who will end atop the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and win an automatic bid to the four-team NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a brand new season.” These are coach Adam Wright’s words on the Bruins’ move from regular season play into the postseason.
UCLA hosts the MPSF Tournament this weekend, in which they are the number three seed. Its first game is on Friday against sixth-seeded Pepperdine. After Friday, the schedule is up to fate ““ winners keep playing winners, and losers play losers.
Last season, the Bruins ended with a disappointing fourth-place finish at the MPSF Tournament, losing to the Golden Bears and the Trojans in the process.
“We have nothing to lose. ‘SC’s the three-time national champion. If we win it all, we’re the underdogs; if we lose, we lose,” said redshirt junior goalie Matt Rapacz. “At this point, we’re just taking the mindset that we’re going to win.”
Looking back on the season, there have been perhaps unexpected major contributors to UCLA’s success.
In a sport where most freshman take a redshirt season to acclimate to college-level water polo, Paul Reynolds is the sole true freshman. He is third on the team in goals, with 31 on the season. He contributed greatly to the Bruins’ last regular-season win, with three goals.
“I really believe he’ll grow into quite a player,” Wright said on Saturday after the game. “He’s been great all year and I think he’s going to be great for us down the stretch.”
The Bruins’ true key to success has been their ability to come together as a team. Rapacz said their communication in the pool has improved from last year, which has led to smoother games. He added that, this year, they have more belief in themselves than in years past.
Junior attacker Bret Lathrope added that the team members have simply become much better friends this year.
“I think we gained a trust for each other, came closer in and out of the pool, we’re friends and that’s been a key,” he said.
UCLA is focused on its most immediate threat: Pepperdine. The Bruins are 2-0 against the Waves this year, with the last matchup coming just more than a week ago.
“They’re a real “˜rah-rah’ team … Any momentum is huge for them, so we have to make sure not to give it to them,” Rapacz said.
Though UCLA played Pepperdine so recently, said Wright, the Waves have the same exact advantage in knowing what to expect from the Bruins. The Bruins know that their success relies more on what they do than how their opponents perform.
“We’re the third seed; there’s nothing to lose right now, have to give it our all,” Lathrope said. “If we lose, we’re done, so we have to stay focused.”