When the UCLA women’s water polo team scored again late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s national semifinal game to trim USC’s lead to just two, the crowd began to buzz with excitement.
The Bruins were two steals and two miraculous scores away from extending their season ““ then they ran out of time.
Failing to convert in the fourth quarter is something UCLA never became accustomed to this year.
All season long, from an early February win over No. 2 Cal in the Stanford Invitational to an overtime victory over No. 1 Stanford in the final of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament two weeks ago, the Bruins were able to apply their signature defensive pressure late in games to enable heroic comebacks.
But this time it just didn’t happen for the Bruins, and the letdown meant facing a loss that was particularly difficult for the team’s five seniors, who have not won an NCAA title since their freshman year in 2009.
Coming back to Westwood empty-handed did, however, allow the seniors a chance to reflect on their careers in blue and gold and on how they have grown since their inaugural title run.
“Personally, for me, one of my weaknesses was just consistency, and this year, I wanted to be as consistent as possible and have a constant work ethic,” said senior utility KK Clark.
Clark was more than consistent this season, scoring a team-high 58 goals and only being held scoreless in two of the team’s 27 games.
She and senior goalkeeper Caitlin Dement were announced as first-team All-MPSF selections earlier this month.
Judging from the way this team scratched and clawed its way back into games that came down to the wire, it is clear that the Bruins formed a special bond founded on accountability and communication.
“I think that we really built a strong foundation off of trust and experience in practice,” said senior attacker Hannah Sebenaler.
“We did hold true to Bruin water polo and in the end we might’ve come up a little bit short, but we gave it our all and we left everything that we had in the pool.”
UCLA’s seniors were able to draw on what they learned as freshmen to guide current underclassmen through situations of adversity, including two overtime games and several multi-goal second half deficits.
“My freshman year, I learned a lot from the seniors that were there and I tried to carry that along for the rest of my career here,” said senior attacker Sarah Orozco.
“I felt like I wanted to lead by example, and I think I did that effectively. I want our team to do well and carry all the stuff that I learned my freshman year when we won the championship. I just hope that all the underclassmen grasp that.”
Though four of UCLA’s seven starters this season will be headed for the Inverted Fountain come June 15, the Bruins remain a deep and talented team going into next season.
Junior utility Emily Greenwood, junior attacker Gisselle Naranjo and sophomore utility Becca Dorst, all starters this season, will be back at the Spieker Aquatics Center next January, along with All-MPSF newcomer Emily Donohoe and a host of athletic underclassmen.
The arrival of eight stellar new recruits ““ signed by coach Brandon Brooks in November ““ will also be met with the return of goalkeeper Sami Hill, who redshirted what would have been her sophomore season to train with the USA Women’s National Team during this Olympic year.
This outgoing class of seniors is the last remaining piece of a UCLA women’s water polo dynasty that captured five straight national titles from 2005 to 2009.
Now it will be the job of the team’s younger players to take what they have learned and revive the championship spirit of a program that has won more than half of the NCAA women’s water polo titles ever awarded.
“The advice I would give would be to really respect the process,” said senior defender Nicole Barker.
“I think it comes down to the little things and we tried to teach our freshmen this year that, and they really learned it and respected it.”
What the class of 2012 has been able to do so well is forge a close-knit team dynamic that not only craves victory but also understands the importance of being a team as well as the honor in representing one’s university.
“You win as a family, you lose as a family. Like this weekend, I wouldn’t have traded anything to be on the winning team,” Dement said.
“I’m happy with what we did this weekend even though we lost. I’m happy to lose with the teammates that I’ve had.
“Having UCLA across your chest, it’s deeper than anything you can imagine. It’s just Bruin pride.”