The Bruins will get a preview of tournament-style play this week.
No. 2 UCLA men’s water polo (6-0) will kick off its weekend co-hosting the SoCal Invitational against Pomona-Pitzer (5-2), one of two unranked teams in the draw. The top 11 men’s water polo programs in the country will be part of the 16-team field, as well as the local co-host No. 13 Loyola Marymount.
Although UCLA opened its season with the Navy Open and Stanford Invitational, it hasn’t seen the round-by-round single elimination format of the SoCal Invitational yet this fall. However, it is the format of UCLA’s two end-of-season tournaments — the MPSF tournament and the NCAA Championships.
Coach Adam Wright said this weekend’s invitational will be a good practice run of the format, especially since many Bruins haven’t experienced it.
“It’s our one big tournament of the year where all the top teams are coming,” Wright said. “It’s a great opportunity to see where we stand as a team with a lot of new players, and we can learn a lot about those guys based on how we come out on Monday.”
The No. 1 seed in the tournament is UC Santa Barbara (13-0), which has beaten then-No. 1 USC, then-No. 1 Stanford, and then-No. 4 California, but the Bruins won’t see the Gauchos until the semifinals – if at all.
If UCLA wins its first game against Pomona Pitzer, it will face the winner of No. 7 California (7-3) and No. 10 UC Irvine (5-2). The Bears bested the Anteaters when when the team’s played Sept. 8, but California dropped two matches to then-No. 11 UC Davis and then-No. 6 Pacific the next week.
But the Bruins have also faced some good competition so far.
UCLA has beaten three of the teams in this weekend’s invitational – No. 6 Pepperdine, No. 14 Princeton and No. 20 San Jose State. The Bruins played Italian professional team Pro Recco and American professional team Olympic Club earlier in the season as exhibition matches as well.
Sophomore attacker Ashworth Molthen said the Bruins’ experience playing quality teams has shown them the level of play they need to possibly compete with top-3 teams in back-to-back days.
“It has been good preparation for the teams we could play at (the SoCal Invitational),” Molthen said. “This tournament is at home for us so that definitely helps a lot, but it’s really about the focus and energy we bring to battle with those top teams in (collegiate) water polo.”
Besides the teams they’ve already played, having the potential to play against California, Stanford and USC presents an opportunity for the UCLA’s young roster to take on their perennial challengers for the first time.
Since Wright took over as coach in 2009, the Bruins have racked up 38 losses to those three schools but have lost only four matches to other teams in that same span. The only player on UCLA’s roster that has beaten California, Stanford and USC in a season series is redshirt senior goalkeeper Alex Wolf.
Freshman attacker Tommy Gruwell said the young players on the team rely a lot on on the upperclassmen’s experience in playing and winning in big matches against top-ranked teams.
“They let us know what to expect and are good role models for freshman,” Gruwell said. “(Wolf) is our only senior with a couple other juniors, and (the upperclassmen) have set a good bar to reach with the success they have seen in the program.”
The first game at the SoCal Invitational at Loyola Marymount will start at 1:00 p.m. Friday, when Stanford takes on Air Force, while UCLA will open play at Spieker Aquatics Center at 1:00 p.m. against Pomona-Pitzer.