A last-second loss ended the Bruins’ season last year, but it inspired an offseason dedicated to changing the program.
“As soon as the season ended last December we had to take a look at ourselves,” said No. 2 UCLA men’s water polo coach Adam Wright. “If you lose four games in the last 10 seconds, including the national semifinal, it’s all the little things. We weren’t where we needed to be as a program, from a cultural standpoint, and the reality is it caught up.”
Last season’s 8-7 loss to eventual champion USC in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship ended UCLA’s quest for its fourth title in five years – after the Bruins won it all in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
Junior attacker Nicolas Saveljic is one of five current players that played on the 2017 team, and said as a veteran on the team, it is his job to teach and help the underclassmen grow.
“I can use my experience from the previous two years to try to help out the younger guys,” Saveljic said. “College water polo is way different, like so many rules, it sometimes gets physical, just the way how college water polo works, (younger players) need some time to adjust.”
Wright said the team will have to find a way to win in tight games with top teams in order to bolster its experience and readiness for the big matches and tournaments at the end of the season.
“Experience is really important and we’re a new team this year,” Wright said. “Our goal is to get ourselves into as many (close game) situations as possible with the Cals, the Stanfords, the USCs. The reality is those are experiences we’re going to need if we’re going to be the best team at the end of the year.”
UCLA will enter the season tied with Stanford at No. 2 in the preseason rankings, while reigning champion USC is in the top spot and Cal follows closely in fourth. All five Bruin losses in 2018 were at the hands of those three teams.
“We’re very young and we tried to focus on ourselves (during the offseason),” said sophomore attacker Ashworth Molthen. “Stanford, USC – they’re all super talented, but we can learn from our mistakes last year and now we’re just trying to move on.”
Although the majority of the roster is made up of underclassmen, UCLA will bring back much of its production from last year. Five of the Bruins’ top seven scorers from last season are returning, including leading scorer Saveljic, who finished ninth in the MPSF conference in goals, with 51.
Besides the graduation of five seniors, UCLA lost its second leading scorer, Quinten Osborne – who transferred to Long Beach State. However, the Bruins brought in four recruits and a transfer from USC to fill the empty spots left behind.
Molthen, who tied for the team’s third leading scorer in 2018, played with freshman attacker Tommy Gruwell and freshman center Gabe Discipulo at the 2018 FINA Youth World Championships. He said the loss of Osborne was tough, but the potential of the incoming players is a huge boost for the team this season.
“(Osborne) was a talented player, no doubt, but we try to look past that,” Molthen said. “All of our freshmen are very talented and they can contribute a lot right away, but (Gruwell and Discipulo) are two very special players, and I’m very hyped to have them as part of the team.”
While this year’s team has some different faces than last year’s, Wright said the big change for this year’s team was the preparation for the season and the mentality of competing as a premier team in college water polo.
“Well we’ve made changes within our squad in terms of rosters,” Wright said. “But we’ve concentrated more on tightening down things as far as the standard of training and how we train, because those are the things that are going to be important. We’re going to see everybody’s best game, and if we’re not ready it puts us in a bad position, because one game can be the difference for us.”
UCLA will begin its season Sept. 7 at the Navy Open in Annapolis, Maryland, facing off against Fordham, No. 12 Princeton, Navy and La Salle over the course of the weekend.