This post was updated August 30 at 3:48 p.m.
For the past four years, the UCLA men’s water polo team solidified its foundation through the depth of its senior class.
Instead, the entire 2017 roster is overwhelmed by a large incoming class of freshmen, bringing an end to one cycle and another anew.
“Last year we had a veteran group. Most of our team was seniors and juniors,” said redshirt senior center Matt Farmer. “This year, we have a group of 10 or 11 freshmen that are all coming in to make a big impact on this program.”
The imprint of the last graduating class remains in the new season, bringing a veteran presence that is lacking in the youthful roster.
“The culture that they left and the blueprint that they left is huge,” said senior attacker Max Irving. “We all know what we need to do. We have to respect those guys and respect the culture that they kind of instilled in the institution that we have so far. They definitely left us with a good example of what to do.”
The new roster consists of nine freshmen players, three of which come from Harvard-Westlake School, one of the premier water polo schools. Among the recruiting class are goalkeeper Patrick Saunders, attacker Luke Henriksson and utility Evan Rosenfeld.
“It’s going to be a little bit different this year in the sense that we are going to be in a learning phase for a little bit longer through the beginning stages of season,” said coach Adam Wright. “It’s normal with such a mass exodus of players.”
The Bruins will have to fill both the offensive and defensive voids left by then-senior attacker Patrick Fellner, who led last year’s team in scoring, and then-senior defender Chancellor Ramirez. The majority of the freshman class brings in All-American honors as well as Junior Olympic experience with Team USA.
“I definitely still think that we’re just the same as we were last year, it’s just a different group,” Irving said. “I think our expectation and goal is the same. We know that if we do things our way, we are always going to be in a position to be successful no matter what group we have.”
A silver-lining for the Bruins is the presence of three standout seniors. Irving, Farmer and senior utility Alex Roelse, who established themselves as part of the top 10 scorers on the team, will be the Bruins’ source of familiarity in a young, new lineup.
“This year I have been trying to focus on leading by example. Trying to do all the right things inside and outside the pool,” Farmer said. “I come to practice and give it my best every day, mentally and physically. Just set the best examples for these young guys that I need to show them how I train so we can continue this culture of what we have tried to create over these last couple of years.”
Last year’s second leading scorer and three-time All-American Ryder Roberts will return for the Bruins in a different role, serving as the team’s assistant coach.
“It’s a little weird for sure. One of them is our coach now, Ryder who I lived with for three years,” Farmer said. “It’s a little strange, but we have a really good group of guys that stayed.”
In terms of the Big Four, UCLA enters the season ranked at the bottom of the polls.
California, which won the national championship last year, is returning with the majority of its starting lineup including junior and senior attackers Johnny Hooper and Luca Cupido, respectively.
USC is coming in with a deep 10-man senior roster, including Team USA goalie McQuin Baron. The depth of USC’s line includes Australian natives Blake and Lachlan Edwards who led the Trojans in scoring during the 2016 season.
The Stanford Cardinal redshirted players such as senior goalkeeper Drew Holland and freshman driver Ben Hallock. The decision to redshirt key players gives the Cardinal an added depth of maturity and experience that Stanford lacked in the previous season.
“All three of them are veteran-heavy teams,” Wright said. “From an experience standpoint … we are further back from them for sure. Do we know the challenge that lies ahead of us? Absolutely.”
The Bruins look to fill a crucial hole in their roster after losing then-senior Garrett Danner in the cage.
Danner completed his UCLA collegiate career leading men’s water polo in career saves with 932. Danner was also only the second goalie in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation to exceed the 900 mark in career saves.
Luckily, there are four fresh goalies that are fighting for the starting spot: senior Aleksandar Ruzic, junior Alex Wolf, redshirt sophomore Jonathan Van De Velde and Saunders.
“The interesting part is we have tall goalies, we have short, quick goalies, we have medium-sized goalies, all of them very unique,” Wright said. “Some have quicker reactions than others, some are longer than others. Some are better passers. We could take the different goalie at different stages. The nice part is we have depth there.”
The youth on the roster is a change of pace and dynamic on a once veteran-heavy team. However, the depth of position players with the incoming class proves to be the starting point of a new cycle.
“Does it open up a lot of avenues when you lose nine guys? From a playing standpoint and a financial standpoint, of course. The nice part is, we brought in a great group of guys,” Wright said. “We are excited the have them and see how we mix the young guys and the old guys and see where we can go.”
UCLA men’s water polo will start its season by hosting an invitational this weekend, competing against Pomona-Pitzer, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and USC.