The NCAA men’s water polo title was USC’s to win.
The year was 1996 and the top-ranked Trojans were slated to face a Bruin squad that had just fallen flat a week prior, finishing sixth in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament yet still receiving a miraculous at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Playing in their second consecutive NCAA title game in front of a crowd of more than 1,500 people at UC San Diego, the No. 2 Bruins jumped out to an early lead thanks in large part to a two-point goal from Randy Wright, the older brother of current UCLA coach Adam Wright.
The team was inspired to hold on by the outstanding performance of senior goalkeeper and tournament MVP Matt Swanson, who dedicated his 14-save performance to late Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, his favorite musician, following the 8-7 upset victory.
1996 marks the last time UCLA defeated USC to win the national title. While no current Bruin on the men’s water polo team claims to be a Deadhead, the NCAA championship context remains much the same 16 years later.
If all goes according to history, which shows that no school outside of California has ever reached an NCAA final, No. 1 USC (27-0) will likely face off against No. 2 UCLA (27-4) for the Trojans’ unprecedented fifth consecutive national title on Sunday afternoon at USC’s McDonald’s Swim Stadium.
Eking out a bid-clinching win over the Stanford Cardinal in the MPSF tournament last weekend, the Bruins are pleased to remain in contention, but understand there is still a job to do.
“In retrospect, looking back to last weekend, this team had a lot of pressure on it, so to get to this point is great,” Wright said. “Now it’s all about finishing.”
Dethroning the Trojans will require the underdog Bruins to focus from the opening sprints and hold their position defensively against a talented and physical Trojan offensive front to avoid an early deficit.
“USC runs a lot of two-center offenses, so we really just have to be aware defensively and be able to communicate with each other so that everyone knows what’s going on around us and we’re all on the same page,” said junior center Lucas Reynolds.
For UCLA’s four seniors, this weekend’s NCAA tournament provides one final chance to go out on top against a team that has ended their title hopes in the NCAA finals two out of the last three seasons.
“We’re just very excited to have the chance again,” said senior utility Josh Samuels. “I’ve been (to the championship game) before and it’s fun, but it’s just really exciting to be able to go back and accomplish a goal.”
In 1996′s final, a standing room only crowd provided for a raucous environment that only added to the intense rivalry matchup taking place in the pool.
The 2012 Bruins insist that this year’s crosstown venue won’t play a role in their performance but are hopeful that UCLA supporters will have a strong showing given the tournament’s proximity to Westwood.
“For these guys that have worked so hard, it would be great to have the support of our campus,” Wright said. “It’s a heck of a challenge to play a great team at their home pool … and we’re ready to embrace it.”
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