It has been eight years since UCLA, the team with the most NCAA women’s water polo championship titles, last won the crown.
But once again, the Bruins have only three games and seven teams separating them from their eighth national championship title.
No. 1 UCLA (22-1, 6-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) begins its NCAA postseason trek against the No. 16 Wagner Seahawks (26-10, 14-0 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) on Friday.
Both the Seahawks and Bruins earned automatic bids to the tournament by virtue of winning their respective conference titles. While UCLA won its first MPSF title in two years April 30 when it beat No. 2 Stanford (20-3, 5-1 MPSF) 6-3, Wagner beat Marist College (20-14, 11-3 MAAC) 11-7 for its fourth consecutive MAAC conference championship.
Despite four consecutive NCAA berths to go along with their conference titles, the Seahawks have yet to make it past their first game in the past three seasons, dropping to Indiana, Princeton and San Diego State in the past three years.
This year’s squad, however, is different.
The team made Wagner history by winning the school’s second ever NCAA postseason game when it beat hosts then-No. 15 UC San Diego (19-15, 3-0 Western Water Polo Association) to advance to the first round.
To extend their run, the Seahawks will have to pull off the upset again – this time against the top-seeded team in the nation.
And the Bruins have history on their side for the first few rounds. Since 2009, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament has made the finals every time and won it a total of five times.
Both teams feature offensive juggernauts. UCLA freshman attacker Maddie Musselman, who was named MPSF Newcomer of the Year, was the second leading scorer in the MPSF with 59 goals.
Wagner, on the other hand, features junior utility Kimberly Watson, who led the MAAC with 99 total goals.
Should UCLA get past Wagner, it will play the winner of No. 4 California (15-9, 2-4 MPSF) and No. 5 UC Irvine (23-6, 5-0 Big West Conference), who have yet to play each other this season.
The Bruins most recently defeated the Golden Bears 9-8 in the MPSF semifinal, overcoming an 8-7 deficit heading into the final frame.
The winner of UCLA’s bracket will most likely be tasked with beating either Stanford or No. 3 USC (28-3, 4-2 MPSF).
The Cardinal have made the finals every year since 2010, while the Trojans have made it four times in that span. USC is the only team to have defeated the Bruins this season, albeit back in late February.
All three teams, coach Brandon Brooks said, are comparable in terms of talent and capability, though this year, UCLA has the best head-to-head record of any of the three teams.
Stanford and USC are both 2-3, while UCLA stands atop with the lone winning record, 3-1.