The current members on the UCLA women’s water polo team have never been the one seed in the conference championship tournament.
They’ve made it to the championships twice, and won once, but both times as the two seed.
But with an undefeated conference record, the No. 1 Bruins (20-1, 6-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) find themselves in a new situation heading into the MPSF championship.
“We got the one seed because we were able to play good enough water polo,” said coach Brandon Brooks. “We didn’t win anything – we won a couple games, but the prize is much larger. We’re playing for the end of the season, to make sure that we keep our focus and keep that going, that’s the challenge.”
As the top seed, the team gets a first-round bye and a match with fourth-seed Arizona State (19-6, 3-3) or fifth-seeded California (14-7, 2-4) – both of whom UCLA has beaten by six or more goals this year – in the semifinal. And though it’s not unique to the one seed, UCLA also has home-pool advantage.
That being said, the one seed doesn’t always bear fruit. Since 2009, the top seed in the conference championship tournament has only won the weekend twice.
The most notorious nemesis of No. 1 seeds in the past, however? UCLA itself.
In 2010, the fifth-seeded Bruins beat the top-seeded Cardinal in the semifinal and would go on to become the lowest-seeded conference champion in MPSF history. UCLA upset then-No. 1 Stanford in the semifinal the following year, and again in the 2012 championship game the year after.
“We’ve always been the chasers,” said senior defender Aubrie Monahan. “(Now) everybody’s trying to chase us. … Maintaining where we are right now is going to be really important.”
For Monahan, maintaining where they are means continuing to stress the defensive half of the game. Ahead of the tournament, the Bruins have also been working on their patience on the offensive end of the pool, making the extra pass when they have the chance.
Going off of the recent results between the top-three teams, Stanford has the best track record to be the one to upset this year’s one seed.
It beat then-undefeated USC by four goals at the Trojans’ home pool the week before only losing to UCLA by one. The difference between the Bruins and the Cardinal was never more than two for the last three quarters of the game.
Brooks said they’re taking the weekend one game at a time, but there’s no guarantee that Stanford and UCLA will meet at all. Both still have to make it past their semifinals, and for the Cardinal, its first-round matchup with seventh-seed CSU Bakersfield as well.
The Bruins have beaten every team they could face in this tournament at least once throughout the season, which senior attacker Kelsey O’Brien says is cause for some confidence and comfort. She, Monahan and Brooks all said they are prepared to deal with each team’s adjustments, though.
“We haven’t seen Cal in a while so if we end up playing them, that could be a big challenge,” O’Brien said. “I would expect them to do some very different things and we’ll have to adjust to that. ASU, they’re a good competitor, and Stanford and ‘SC are always going to do something different. … They’re going to want their one seed back.”