The first major NCAA Division I water polo gathering of the season has gone by many names over the years.
It’s been the Kap7 NorCal Invitational, the NorCal tournament, sometimes it’s been the SoCal tournament and this year it’s the Mountain Pacific Invitational. But underneath the titles, there’s one thing that they all have in common – for the past 25 years, it’s where win streaks go to die.
In the last decade, No. 2 USC (6-0) has strung together not one, but two stretches of 35 or more wins only to lose them in the first tournament’s championship game.
No. 3 California (8-0) had a perfect season in 1992, but lost the following year to ‘SC in the contest’s semifinals.
And now, the No. 1 UCLA Bruins (11-0) head into the Mountain Pacific Invitational with a 44-game winning streak that dates back to 2014.
It will be the first time this year that they’ll face a top-five team for keeps, not in exhibition, if they make it past Pomona-Pitzer and the second round.
Nonetheless, the Bruins have had strong performances in past NorCal tournaments. They have a 13-4 record against the usual top-five teams of Cal, Stanford, USC and Pacific and have made the finals each year under coach Adam Wright.
Those four losses have come only in the championship game, but UCLA has won the tournament for the past three years. Each of those three games, however, has featured significant offensive production – 15, 16 and 17 total goals – and the Bruins have struggled on the attack of late.
After opening the first nine games of the season with an average of over 16 goals per game, the Bruins only scored nine against Pepperdine. In two games last year, they averaged 15 goals against the Waves.
UCLA’s struggles nearly cost it the game the following night against Long Beach State, but its defensive resolve kept it in the game and has gotten stronger since the beginning of the season.
“Defense is a big part of our game, we really focus on that,” said junior utility Alex Roelse. “For us, our goal is to keep a team under six goals.”
They kept Long Beach at six goals and limited Pepperdine to three, but how many goals they allow to the top competition this weekend will serve as a better indicator as to where the Bruins stand.
What could disguise how well the defense plays, however, is the return of senior goalie Garrett Danner. Wright has said that defensively they have leaned on him in the past, and senior attacker Patrick Fellner shared that opinion after the game against the 49ers too.
During that game, when junior goalie Aleksander Ruzic had a career-high 17 save performance, Danner remained on the bench in a tracksuit and tennis shoes. He did the same against Pepperdine and also did not play in any of the Princeton Invitational games.
“He got sick when we went back east, lost a lot of fluids,” Wright said after the match against the 49ers. “He trained last week, but it was still better to keep him out. He’ll be ready to go next weekend.”
Danner, the Division I Player of the Year and Peter Cutino award winner, has 18 saves over the three games he has played.