Men’s Water Polo

UCLA 16
UC IRVINE 8

Four years ago, then-freshmen attackers Bret Lathrope and Griffin White, utility Josh Samuels and redshirt goalkeeper Matt Rapacz made their UCLA home debuts against UC Irvine in the first official athletic event at Spieker Aquatics Center.

On Sunday, the opponent was the same but the circumstances were all too different, as the class of 2013 was honored on Senior Day before the opening sprint of its last-ever UCLA home game.

Though the team savored the symmetrical moment to close out the regular season, it understands now is not the time for comfort and reflection.

“It’s weird because it came so fast, but I’ve enjoyed this season a lot,” Samuels said.

“This was fun, but you can’t think about it too much, because we still have a job to finish here and we want to leave a legacy on this program so we have to get going.”

The No. 2 Bruins (25-3, 7-1 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) coasted to a 16-8 victory over the No. 9 Anteaters on Sunday morning, but they found out the hard way on Saturday night that the path to legacy will likely travel through No. 1 USC (24-0, 8-0).

After a goal from redshirt junior defender Chris Wendt tied Saturday’s game at eight goals apiece with 2:46 to play, USC scored twice consecutively, leaving a surging UCLA with too little time to once again tie things up in the game’s final ticks.

The 10-9 result locked the Bruins into the No. 2 seed for next weekend’s MPSF tournament, but also alerted them to the more pressing concern of allowing talented teams to score too many careless goals.

“On defense, really we’re giving up too many easy goals and those are the ones that come back to haunt you,” said coach Adam Wright.

“We’ve got to sharpen up our defense in all phases and if we can do that, we have a chance no matter what game we’re playing.”

Saturday marked the second time this season that UCLA has fallen to its crosstown rival by just one goal. While the players say confidence is not the issue, staying close early will be key to getting the Bruins over the hump against the undefeated Trojans.

“I think we’re a really good second-half team, but if we put ourselves in a good position early in a game we know that we can do it,” said sophomore attacker Daniel Lenhart. “Defensively, we just need to hold it together.”

With only two weeks left in its quest to secure its first national title since 2004, UCLA will rely heavily on its matured seniors, who have experienced this same grind three times before, to lead the way.

“It’s actually crazy how fast time goes,” Wright said. “Just to see how they’ve grown into the men they are now and the leaders they are now is really what’s most important to me.”

Email Erickson at aerickson@media.ucla.edu.