UCLA women’s water polo graduated a strong group of seniors in 2017 that had reached the national championship game three times and will now have to rely on the strength of its underclassmen.
Coach Adam Wright – now the coach of both men’s and women’s water polo – faced a similar challenge with the men’s team in the fall.
And that season ended with a NCAA championship.
“The reality is that it’s actually very similar to what we dealt with on the men’s side,” Wright said. “I think a great example for this team is looking at the men’s team, not just because we won, but if you do things the right way you have a chance to compete against the very best.”
UCLA women’s water polo starts the year tied with USC for third in the MPSF and opens its season Saturday with a game against Loyola Marymount and two exhibition games against USC.
Wright replaces Brandon Brooks, who was with the Bruins for eight seasons and three national championship appearances, as head coach.
“(Wright) has a completely different coaching style and it’s really good for us because I think that change is a really good thing for our program,” said junior goalie Carlee Kapana. “We’ve learned a whole different way to play defense, so I think that’s pretty cool.”
Sophomore attacker Maddie Musselman, an Olympic gold medalist and the all-time leader for UCLA in goals scored in a freshman season, said that the team mentality under Wright has also changed.
“I think there’s an incorporation of every single person, whether you’re inside the pool or outside the pool,” Musselman said. “For us, that’s been a huge change and I think that’s a great change to have that commitment and especially moving forward to know that every person is 100 percent into the process and the journey.”
With the graduation of seven seniors, including four of their top-five scorers, younger players have had to step into leadership roles.
“I’ve seen a lot of people step up into new positions, including myself, and it’s been cool to see certain people grow and adjust to their new role,” Musselman said. “For myself it’s not only playing to lead by example, but it’s vocally stepping up into a new position.”
The Bruins add four freshmen to their roster – attackers Lexi Liebowitz, Roxy Wheaton and Myna Simmons, and goalie Jahmea Bent. Wright said that he thinks they have all done a great job through fall training and that they will all get their shot in the pool.
Liebowitz has competed as a member of both the junior and senior U.S. national teams and won the National Junior Olympics three times with the 680 Drivers Water Polo Club.
“I think she’ll be able to give us many roles, not only from the outside but also helping us from the inside,” Wright said.
Wheaton was named the MVP of the 18U National Junior Olympics, also as a member of the 680 Drivers.
“(Wheaton) has incredible speed,” Wright said. “It’s actually incredible how she’s able to move up and down the pool.”
With the first test of the season coming this weekend, Wright said this new team still has a lot to get through before that first test.
“The positive part is they’ve been really focused,” Wright said. “That’s not always easy with the amount of trainings they’ve been putting in.”