The Big Four no more?
Stanford, California, UCLA and USC – currently ranked No. 4, No. 3, No. 2 and No. 1 respectively – have been widely recognized as the four best water polo schools in the nation, and for good reason.
The last 19 national champions have come from that list, including a six-year run by the Trojans between 2008 and 2013.
The Bruins, the most recent back-to-back champions, had an NCAA record 57-game winning streak snapped last season after a one-goal loss to the Trojans.
In that time, UCLA won a pair of national championships, had 18 All-American selections and had head coach Adam Wright named Coach of the Year twice.
In the last year or so, however, power in the sport has become more evenly distributed.
“This year the competition is more stable and it makes things interesting,” said senior utility Alex Roelse. “You have to be on your game every single game.”
The Bruins have already played five games decided by three goals or fewer against teams outside of the Big Four in just 16 total contests. A few weeks ago, UCLA fell to No. 6 UC Irvine, and in the next match, No. 9 Pepperdine stormed back to lose by a single goal.
Wright said he is happy with the newfound competitiveness of the sport, but that it has been a lot for his young team to handle.
“It’s great,” Wright said. “We are young and we’re up and down, but we don’t understand how to approach each game the same way and you’ve got a lot of great teams out there.”
Each of the top four teams has at least one loss, and the handful of teams ranked just behind them including No. 7 Long Beach State are consistently playing them closer. The 49ers lost in double-overtime to the Trojans two weeks ago, then had a two-goal loss to the Bruins on Saturday.
Wright has taken notice.
“Long Beach played USC tight, they played us tight,” Wright said. “We also had our struggles with Irvine so from top to bottom it’s great for the sport, and for us moving forward it’s only going to get harder.”
There has also been a leap in talent on a wide array of rosters.
Fourteen All-American selections in the last three seasons have been from non-Big Four schools.
Roelse said this may be due to the realignments that occurred two seasons ago, splitting the teams into more competitive, separate conferences.
Because 18 teams fought for the same tournament bid under the old structure, this new alignment of conferences gives other schools a chance to qualify without having to constantly get past the Big Four.
“What I heard from a lot of teams is that, that was the way to keep the sport growing and have other teams have opportunities to attract players to give them a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament,” said Roelse. “I think because of that, other teams have been able to grow and strengthen.”
Junior attacker Kent Inoue said the better rosters across the board is not only good for the sport, but also for the team’s development.
“It’s just good preparation for us and it gives us experience,” Inoue said.
UCLA will play a Big Four team for the first time in five matches Saturday when they take on No. 3 California at home.