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UCLA men’s water polo aims to break dry spell in NCAA championships

Sophomore goalkeeper Garrett Danner and the No. 1-seeded Bruins are searching for their first NCAA title since 2004 this weekend in San Diego. (Owen Emerson/Daily Bruin)

By Erik Rehnberg

Dec. 5, 2014 11:40 a.m.

The last time UCLA men’s water polo team went to San Diego, it was untested, with a number of players who had never played a game of collegiate water polo. Four games later, the team had kicked off its season in a commanding fashion, outscoring its opponents 82-11.

On Saturday, UCLA men’s water polo will return to San Diego, hoping to claim its ninth national title at this weekend’s NCAA championship tournament.

Since winning the inaugural tournament in 1969, the No. 1 Bruins (27-3) have made frequent appearances, including four wins between 1995 and 2000, but haven’t won since 2004, when the team beat UC San Diego at a tournament hosted by Stanford.

First up on the docket for UCLA will be No. 6 UC San Diego on Saturday afternoon. The Tritons beat the No. 8 Brown Bears to qualify for the tournament during a play-in game last Saturday. UCSD and UCLA have met twice this season, with the Bruins winning both times by at least eight goals.

A third win against San Diego would put UCLA in Sunday’s national championship game, where it would play the winner of Saturday’s other NCAA semifinal match between No. 1 Stanford and No. 3 USC.

UCLA lost to both of those teams early in the season but won when it faced them again in conference play. The Bruins also beat the Trojans in the third-place game at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament on Nov. 23.

While UCLA’s wins against USC this season have so far been more decisive, the two teams have faced off for the national title three times in the past five years, with USC winning each matchup.

“It’s a confidence booster that we have a winning record against the three teams that are there this weekend,” said sophomore goalkeeper Garrett Danner.

Danner added he thinks that having seen the teams before allows the Bruins to focus more on their own play rather than wonder what their opponents will do.

The national tournament comes at the end of a strong season for the Bruins, whose three losses leave them with the best record in collegiate water polo after playing a challenging schedule that frequently saw the team paired against other top-five teams.

Stanford also only has three losses, but fewer wins.

While some of the juniors and seniors on the team played in the national championship game in 2012, this is the first national tournament for some of the younger members of the UCLA team.

“I’m very confident. I wouldn’t say nervous, (but) excited. I get butterflies thinking about it,” Danner said.

For the older players on the team, the tournament seems just as unique.

“It’s pretty special as a senior, but that doesn’t change the bearing of each game,” senior attacker Paul Reynolds said.

The qualifiers for the tournament are a testament to the strength of California’s water polo tradition – although Brown played for a play-in game, it did not qualify for the tournament proper.

In fact, no team from outside of California has ever played in the national championship game. Cal holds the record for most wins, with 13, while USC is trying to defend a six-year win streak at the tournament, including three wins over UCLA and a 12-11 double-overtime victory against Pacific in 2013.

As the team prepared for its last couple of practices before the weekend, coach Adam Wright said the focus was to “keep it light and fun outside the water” while the team worked on the same program it has been using all year in the pool.

“The guys are antsy and want to play, (but) everything is the same – we won’t be changing things this late,” Wright said.

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