As the Bruin crowd erupted into frenzied cheering at Canyonview Aquatic Center, the entire UCLA bench made the customary mad dash to the pool. Within seconds, the players, coaching staff and a few elusive fans were in the water, celebrating the program’s ninth NCAA title and leaving a decade-long championship drought behind them.
To get there, the UCLA men’s water polo team had to defeat a USC program that had rattled off an incredible six national championships in a row.
If there was ever a time that a top seed might be considered the underdog, it was Sunday afternoon. In coach Adam Wright’s first five years at the helm, his team reached the national championship game three times only to be defeated by the rival Trojans every year.
That was not to be the case Sunday.
“It takes a long time to get to this point. There’s been so many guys that have just come so close that aren’t here anymore, but they are still a part of this,” Wright said. “They helped build the mentality of this team, the culture of this team, moving right into our eight seniors. One thing that I was a little bit nervous about coming into this season was leadership … but man was I wrong. I call this group “the great eight” and it’s for a reason.”
Most of those seniors began competing for the Bruins in 2011 and were immediately given the chance to play for an NCAA title that season. However, back-to-back championship game losses to the Trojans in 2011 and 2012 left the team wanting more. This year, in its final shot at winning it all, the large class of seniors finally accomplished its goal.
As much as winning the national championship was a nice finale, junior utility Danny McClintick said that it has never been about one subset of the team.
“Of course it’s special for the seniors and we want it for the seniors, but you want it for the whole group because it’s not about one guy, it’s not about eight guys, it’s about all the guys in our program plus all the staff,” McClintick said. “It’s about the whole collective group that will never, ever, ever be the same again. So that’s what we won here for, (it) was for this group.”
McClintick, the NCAA tournament MVP and an All-Tournament First Team selection, scored four of the Bruins’ nine championship game goals. Joining him on the First Team were two more underclassmen: sophomore goalkeeper Garrett Danner and sophomore center Gordon Marshall.
As the only sophomores selected to the First Team, both Danner and Marshall had big moments during their first NCAA tournament. Danner made 22 total saves in the pair of wins while Marshall scored three goals, including the championship-winning goal with 34 seconds left in the final.
“It’s just the last goal of the game,” Marshall said. “Nothing more special than the eight goals before it.”
Wright has also had his share of both personal and team achievements over the course of his water polo career. While he is a three-time Olympian, a two-time NCAA champion as a player and an All-American, last weekend’s NCAA championship was his first as a head coach.
This year, he said, felt different.
“I’ve had some really special moments as an athlete but this tops it all,” Wright said. “That feeling I have inside is better than anything I’ve ever felt.”