UCLA men’s water polo has yet to lose, but the Bruins still haven’t won it all.
To date, UCLA has won the Kap7 NorCal Invitational, the SoCal tournament, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship and every game in between.
However, one more weekend remains, one final chapter before the No. 1 Bruins (28-0, 9-0 MPSF) can claim complete dominance over the 2015 collegiate water polo season.
“The only way we’ll be in the history books is if we win the last two games,” said senior defender Anthony Daboub. “All that matters is that we’re 2-0 at the end of this weekend.”
These final games will mark not only the finale of Daboub’s UCLA career, but also the culmination of the team’s yearlong quest to renew national championship glory.
“Our goal all the way back to last January was to put ourselves in a position to be the best team in the country,” said coach Adam Wright. “And that’s what we’ve done.”
The Bruins have secured the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and the location of the tournament itself may also help UCLA win back-to-back titles.
For the first time ever, the NCAA championship weekend comes to Westwood’s own Spieker Aquatics Center.
“It’s big,” said sophomore utility Alex Roelse. “It’s big for us, it’s big for the school, it’s big for the fans being here at our home. … For everybody on the team it’s really exciting.”
UCLA will face UC San Diego (15-3, 4-2 Western Water Polo Association) in the semifinal after the Tritons beat the Princeton Tigers 12-7 in the first play-in match of the tournament.
Senior 2-meter specialist Tyler Mancuso led the team with three goals while senior utility and captain Chase Cockerill added three steals and two assists. Cockerill leads the Tritons with 60 goals and 55 steals on the season.
Like UCLA, UCSD has a spread of players who can put points on the board. Seven Tritons have more than 15 goals this year, while nine Bruins share the same statistic.
In their third match of the season, the Bruins beat the Tritons 18-6 and have not faced them since. In the game, junior center Gordon Marshall tied his career high with five goals as 11 UCLA players scored, and three different goalies guarded the cage.
On the other half of the bracket, No. 3-seed USC (21-6, 6-3 MPSF) will play No. 2-seed California (23-6, 7-1 MPSF) in the second semifinal.
In the third place game of September’s Kap7 NorCal Invitational, the Trojans bested the Golden Bears 12-9. In their scheduled conference game in Berkeley, the two nearly swapped scores, Cal beating USC 12-10.
Should both top seeds – Cal and UCLA – advance to the NCAA final, it would be the fifth match between the two teams this season. Excluding a 13-8 win at the SoCal Tournament, over the three other meetings UCLA has only a total of four goals over Cal.
Just a week and a half ago, the Golden Bears sent the MPSF championship game into overtime – the first extra time incident for the Bruins in more than 60 games, with the last overtime game dating all the way back to 2013’s regular season conclusion.
Between the two teams there were 27 exclusions and three 5-meter penalty shots. It took a career-high 21 saves from junior goalie Garrett Danner and offensive production from eight different Bruins to pull out the 12-11 victory.
“We had three guys who played the 2-meter spot that were all out (because of) foul trouble,” Roelse said. “Even in those circumstances we pulled it off, and that’s the quality of our team. … We’re preparing for any situation that comes and whatever happens, we’ll be ready for what we need to do.”
Adversity has not come frequently this year, but each time it has the Bruins have prepared more than enough to rise above it.
With a berth in the NCAA Tournament and a home-pool advantage, the Bruins have more than just an opportunity to etch their school’s name into water polo record books.
They have a chance to uphold a winning standard, one they have maintained all season long, in climactic fashion.
“It wouldn’t feel complete,” Daboub said. “Everyone will say, ‘Remember when UCLA had that almost 30-whatever-and-0 season?’ But no one would remember it.”