When UCLA water polo’s Anthony Daboub plunged into the water for the first time against Long Beach State on Saturday, he knew he was going to have his hands full.

The 6-foot-2-inch freshman was tasked with guarding the 49ers’ corps of centers, a rotation that includes 6-foot-11-inch junior Dan Matulis, on defense.

Guarding a strong athlete like Matulis, who can easily use his size and reach to draw quick fouls and gain position for point-blank goals, has been a huge undertaking for defenders of every team on Long Beach’s schedule, let alone a true freshman.

While Daboub was whistled for an exclusion and a penalty early in his first shift, the experience will only serve to help the All-CIF defender from Mater Dei High School, who has given the No. 2 Bruins (22-2, 4-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) quality defensive minutes in pressure situations this season.

All of the team’s three true freshmen, Daboub, utility Danny McClintick and attacker Joey Fuentes, have focused on continued growth this season.

“It’s like bringing in a new child per se,” coach Adam Wright said. “Your expectation is that you want things to be done a certain way with everybody knowing how to do it immediately, but that’s unrealistic.”

The true freshmen, of which there have been very few during Wright’s four years at UCLA, are only given a maximum of three to four weeks of summer training before they are thrown into the mix with seasoned collegiate water polo players. As a result, their learning curve is very steep.

UCLA’s coaching staff attempted to close this initial gap in water polo IQ by giving the freshmen sufficient game experience before league play.

“I try to gradually bring them along and have more patience with them than normal because hopefully down the stretch they’re going to have a better grasp of our plan,” Wright said.

Early Success

McClintick wasted no time making his presence known at UCLA, opening up the season with a nine-game goal scoring streak.

The utility, who was named CIF-Southern Section Division IV MVP with Agoura High last year, has chipped in 27 goals for the Bruins so far. He attributes the feat to the experience and past success of his older teammates.

“(The streak) was definitely a little bit surprising for me, but that’s a big testament to the older guys,” McClintick said. “They draw a lot of attention ““ those guys like (senior utility) Josh (Samuels), (senior attacker) Griffin (White) and (sophomore attacker) Paul (Reynolds) who are veterans and have been around for a long time.

“The defense tends to draw towards them and they do a great job of finding guys that are lesser known.”

Growing Pains

Despite their respective successes at the high school level, each of the team’s true freshmen was forced to confront serious changes in preparation and physicality upon arriving at UCLA.

“As far as practice goes, it’s a lot more in detail,” said Fuentes, a left-hander who has 15 goals to date in his debut season. “You can’t get away with the stuff you did in high school because everyone’s bigger and stronger as expected.”

The freshmen say the team’s upperclassmen, including White, Samuels and senior attacker Bret Lathrope, all former true freshmen, have played a major role in their development this season.

“Our seniors and our older guys are really good about making adjustments,” Daboub said. “They let me know whenever I’m doing something wrong or messing up, so it’s been awesome and I still have a lot to learn from them.”

Those same mentoring relationships are what players say have contributed to a particularly strong sense of team.

“That’s been the biggest part about being here is that I really feel like every single one of the older guys loves me and I love them,” McClintick said.

“It’s fantastic to be a part of that and know that you have these guys to lean on and to learn from.”