Men’s water polo to take on Cal Baptist in opening round of NCAA tournament
After missing all of last season with an injury, redshirt junior utility Evan Rosenfeld has scored nine goals for UCLA men’s water polo this season. (Ellie Tsai/Daily Bruin staff)
Men's water polo
Thursday, 1 p.m.
Uytengsu Aquatics Center
NCAA Live Stream
By Kyle Boal
March 17, 2021 1:02 p.m.
It’s win or go home for the Bruins.
No. 4 seed UCLA men’s water polo (6-7, 5-5 MPSF) is set to compete in the NCAA championship tournament, with its first matchup against Western Water Polo Association conference champion and No. 5 seed California Baptist (7-4, 1-1 WWPA) on Thursday.
The winner will face Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference champion No. 1 seed Stanford. The Bruins were undefeated against the Cardinal in the regular season for the first time since 2016 entering their conference tournament, before trailing by two goals most of the way en route to an 11-8 loss in the opening game of the tournament.
After the loss to Stanford, UCLA would lose again, this time to USC, bringing the blue and gold’s losing streak to four straight – the worst in program history.
“We have a good team, but we’ve made a lot of mistakes,” said coach Adam Wright. “But we’ve also learned a lot and we’ve grown a lot. There’s no doubt that if we do things the right way consistently, then we’re gonna have our chance. The four games at this point are irrelevant. Of course, we don’t want to drop four games in a row, but we get a chance to play again on Thursday, and we’re excited to do that.”
The Bruins are outscoring opponents in the first, second and third quarter this season but have been outscored 44-30 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
After back-to-back losses at the conference tournament, redshirt junior utility Evan Rosenfeld said the team needed to maximize its final two weeks of training, which he said his team has accomplished.
“I think the last two weeks of training have been excellent, we’ve definitely gone over that film,” Rosenfeld said. “And we realize how we strayed from our game so much, it just wasn’t us at all. We’re definitely moving forward and I think playing with high energy has been key. And also guys kind of lost those nerves, we’re playing confidently and we’re excited.”
UCLA’s schedule has consisted of five matchups with USC, four with California, three with Stanford and only one game against a nonconference opponent, Pepperdine. The Bruins’ season also started in mid-January rather than the typical September period.
The only common opponent between the Bruins and the Lancers are the Waves, who UCLA defeated 15-9 while Cal Baptist lost 14-9.
First in the conference in steals and tied for first in goals, senior attacker Nicolas Saveljic said the team is focusing on coming out with high energy Thursday knowing they can’t make any more mistakes.
“We haven’t made anyone work too hard to gain an advantage on us, we’re making cheap mistakes and giving away goals,” Saveljic said. “But we’ve learned from the past. This is how it is in big tournaments, you don’t get a second opportunity. So we’ll take advantage of every single opportunity we’re given from the first second of the first game against Cal Baptist to the last possession.”
A season prior, the Bruins failed to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. Saveljic recalled the moment he found out the team missed the playoffs and said this year’s squad has come a long way since then.
“It felt like someone ripped the heart out of me, it felt terrible,” Saveljic said. “I think everything happens for a reason and we didn’t deserve to be in that tournament last year. But this year, we really earned everything. We were really able to build confidence, build chemistry. Even though maybe the results don’t show that, as a team, as a group we really came a long away.”
Wright, now in his 12th year leading the team, has won three national championships, with the most recent coming in 2017. In all of the three-time National Coach of the Year’s championship seasons, the Bruins held a first-round bye – something the team does not have this year.
Nonetheless, with the uncertainty of a season even transpiring just a few months ago, Wright said his team is incredibly grateful for the opportunity to compete and have grown a tremendous amount together.
“This group is in a different place than where we were a year ago,” Wright said. “And they’re in a place where they have organically grown together. They trust each other, how they interact with each other, how they communicate with each other. This year has been fun, you know, and that’s what we’re most thankful for. And believe me, we want to finish this thing. But we’re beyond thankful for this opportunity that we’ve had.”
UCLA’s first sprint will be at 1 p.m. at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center.