The Bruins waved goodbye at their shot at becoming back-to-back champions.
UCLA men’s water polo (23-5) bowed out of the NCAA championship in the semifinals Saturday, failing to defend last year’s title. The Bruins, who were the preseason No. 1 and projected to win the MPSF, fell short of the lofty expectations.
“For me, the hardest part is not getting this one done,” said coach Adam Wright. “I believe there was a lot of lessons learned over the season where we let some things go, and that’s on me. It’s my job to make sure we don’t have those slip-ups.”
The 8-7 loss to USC was UCLA’s second semifinal exit in three years, as the 2016 team fell during the same stage while trying to defend its 2015 title.
UCLA finished 3-5 against its Big Four rivals – champions USC, runners-up Stanford and California. All five of the Bruins’ losses were by two goals or fewer.
Senior attacker David Stiling, who was an honorable mention All-MPSF member, said the Bruins were competitive every outing this year, but UCLA’s late-game struggles came back to haunt the team.
“We had a lot of ‘What if?’ moments,” Stiling said. “We probably lost three or four games this year in the last 20 seconds or even less. You wonder if those turn out the other way. It’s tough to imagine ‘What if?’”
Although UCLA’s only losses came against Big Four teams, the Bruins lost to the Trojans in the final 20 seconds and fell to the Cardinal after a last-second shot, both during the regular season.
The Bruins finished with six players with over 30 goals on the season, led by sophomore Nicolas Saveljic with 51 goals. Six of the seven Bruins with at least 20 goals this season were either freshmen or sophomores, and will return next season.
UCLA will return five of its six All-MPSF recipients next season. First-team selection redshirt junior goalie Alex Wolf will return for his final year.
The Bruins will also bring back second-team members Saveljic and sophomore utility Evan Rosenfeld, as well as honorable mentions freshman attacker Jake Cavano and sophomore center Quinten Osborne.
Senior attacker Austin Rone said this season’s freshman group left a lasting impression on the fifth-year player no other group has.
“It was nice getting to know a new group, (because) this freshman class has been far different from anyone I’ve ever seen come through the program,” Rone said. “I won’t remember every game, but I’ll for sure remember those guys.”
UCLA will lose Rone, Stiling, defender Warren Snyder and attacker Kent Inoue. The four redshirt seniors will graduate boasting a 128-15 record during their five years as Bruins. The senior class redshirted in 2014, played its first games during UCLA’s undefeated season in 2015 and earned their second ring as active players last year.
Wright said the seniors – who have been on three championship teams in five years – should be proud of their careers as Bruins after reviving a program that had not won a title since 2004 before they arrived at Westwood.
“The seniors in this class – what an amazing group,” Wright said. “They really have nothing to hang their heads about.”