A potential semifinal matchup against an arch rival, a repeat of the unexpected run to the conference title and a sixth straight national championship ““ all are compelling story lines for the UCLA women’s water polo team heading into the NCAA Tournament.
But the Bruins are focused on just the first step: the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
No. 3 seed UCLA (20-7) starts off its postseason run today with a quarterfinal matchup against No. 6 seed Loyola Marymount (24-7), the powerhouse team from the Western Water Polo Association at San Diego State’s Aztec Aquaplex.
A run to an NCAA Championship this year might have to go through No. 2 seed USC in the semifinals and top-ranked Stanford in the finals, but coach Brandon Brooks isn’t willing to consider that just yet.
“Looking ahead would be very bad,” Brooks said. “LMU’s a tough opponent, and that’s what we’re focused on.”
The Bruins come into the weekend as the newly-crowned Mountain Pacific Sports Federation champions after they won the MPSF Tournament two weeks ago at Spieker Aquatics Center.
The then-No. 5 seeded Bruins went from potentially not making the national tournament to earning the automatic bid after defeating both Stanford and USC ““ a feat they hadn’t accomplished all year ““ on consecutive days.
Teams might have been sleeping on the young Bruins this year. But not anymore, not after they won the tournament of the toughest conference in the country.
“I think the biggest things we improved on were our communication and our composure during MPSFs,” Brooks said. “I’m stressing that we play smart, play hard and play good defense (in the NCAA Tournament).”
Coming off a season in which they tied for the second most wins in program history with 27 wins on the year, the Lions will get a chance to reacclimate themselves with the Bruins.
LMU and UCLA last faced off against each other on April 8, a game in which the Bruins never trailed and won 8-4.
But that game means nothing to the team now. Despite the MPSF Championship, UCLA is keeping the underdog mentality that was present all year.
“We played really well (in the first meeting), obviously, because we came out and won,” junior center Grace Reynolds said. “But I think when it comes to this whole new tournament, we can’t take any team lightly. We’re going to come out as if they’re ranked above us … because they’re going to come out just as hard since they have nothing to lose.”
If the Bruins want any chance at a sixth-straight championship, they will likely have to replicate the same feisty defense that guided them to the MPSF crown. Sophomore goalkeeper Caitlin Dement posted 22 saves combined over the course of the semis and finals and made several key saves on five-on-six plays that kept her team alive.
On the offensive side, Reynolds (37 goals) and junior attacker Priscilla Orozco (35) have led the team in scoring on the year, but the Bruins will likely come out with a more even-keeled attack.
Balance and patience were two key elements of the Bruins’ attack during the upset run. Take the 7-6 win over Stanford, for instance, which saw the seven goals come from seven different players.
“We each have individual jobs,” Reynolds said. “If the ball comes into two meters, I do what I have to do. I either draw, kick out or score a goal.”
Brooks added that he thinks the Bruins’ balanced attack will be a plus this weekend.
“We don’t look to one person for all our goals,” Brooks said. “It’s about finding the open person. When that time comes, then they have to be confident and be able to shoot.”
As for his team’s chances at bringing the sixth-straight championship back to Westwood?
“Our chances get a lot better every game we win,” Brooks said.