It is still relatively early in the water polo season, but UCLA faces perhaps its biggest game of the year thus far when it hosts California tonight at Spieker Aquatics Center.
Although the No. 4 Bruins (12-4, 0-1 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) have won their fair share of games early on, they enter today’s game with two losses in a row and in need of a win against the No. 2 Bears (12-4, 0-1) to avoid falling to the cellar of the MPSF.
“This is definitely a big-time game for us,” junior attacker Ben Hohl said. “Cal is one of the best teams in the country, and we’ve just lost a couple of close ones, so a win would be huge.”
The Bruins know they will be in for a handful when they host the Bears, who last weekend knocked off then No. 1 Stanford at the UCI Invitational and nearly upset top-ranked USC later that day. The win over Stanford, against whom UCLA is 0-3 this season, helped catapult California over the Cardinal and the Bruins in the national rankings.
The Bears were led last weekend by the offense of junior center Zach White, who tallied eight goals. The squad also boasts a pair of talented players from Belgrade, sophomore attackers Luka Saponjic and Ivan Rackov, who have played nationally for Serbia and who will garner a considerable amount of attention from UCLA’s defense.
“Cal is a deep and very talented team,” Bruin coach Adam Wright said. “(Saponjic and Rackov) can really do a lot of good things, and we’ll have to make it a point to slow down their offense.”
Following a pair of one-goal losses to USC and Stanford on Sunday, the Bruins will have to make an effort to minimize mistakes and capitalize on Cal’s miscues to avoid another setback.
“This game is really going to come down to our execution,” Wright said. “We got a chance to see Cal play (in the finals of the UCI Invitational), and now we know what we have to do and how we have to play in order to have a chance to beat them.”
“We know we have more to offer against Cal,” Hohl said. “If we work on perfecting the things that we’ve made mistakes on, we should be in good shape against them.”
The Bruins are looking to improve their game by starting matches stronger. Against USC, the Bruins found themselves in a 4-2 hole after the first quarter, and they didn’t fare much better against Stanford. The Cardinal held UCLA scoreless until the third quarter, and it was only thanks to the powerful UCLA defense that they were able to keep things close in a 5-4 loss.
An advantage that the Bruins are hoping to exploit is the location of the game. Although there has been just one match played at the new Spieker Aquatics Center, UCLA came out victorious against a solid opponent in UC Irvine. With every other important match this year having been played at a neutral location or at the opponent’s home site, the Bruins are confident that playing in a familiar pool can boost their chances against an elite foe.
“Playing at home should be huge for us, and I’m confident that it will be,” Wright said. “The first game out there showed that we can have a great environment for water polo, and we’re counting on the crazy atmosphere to be there for us against Cal.”