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UCLA men’s water polo to compete for No. 1 seed without head coach

Graduate student attacker Chasen Travisano and No. 3 UCLA men’s water polo are set to close out the regular season with a matchup against No. 1 California as the teams battle for the top seed in the upcoming Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

Men's Water Polo

Saturday, 10 a.m.

Spieker Aquatics Complex
Cal Live Stream-4

By Kyle Boal

Nov. 12, 2021 5:06 p.m.

The Bruins’ final regular-season game comes with postseason implications.

But they will have to play it without their lead man.

When head coach Adam Wright earned a red card in the final minutes of a one-goal loss against No. 2 USC last weekend it rendered him unable to communicate with members of the team for the remainder of that game and the entirety of the next contest.

“I’ll be there, but I’ll be perched up somewhere,” Wright said.

No. 3 UCLA men’s water polo (16-2, 1-1 MPSF) will travel to Berkeley to face No. 1 California (19-2, 3-0) at Spieker Aquatics Complex on Saturday in a rematch from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Invitational, where the Golden Bears earned a 10-9 win over the Bruins. Dating back to last season, UCLA has one victory in five games against Cal.

But unlike the previous meetings, associate head coach Jason Falitz will be leading the charge with assistant coach Jack Grover by his side.

“If you have to rely on just one person, that’s not much of a team,” said graduate student attacker Chasen Travisano. “We look at it like no one person is greater than the group. So whether Adam can’t be there, a player can’t be there, a manager can’t be there, the guys who film can’t be there, anybody can’t be there, it’s next guy up.”

Despite junior goalkeeper Bernardo Maurizi recording 12 saves to Cal goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg’s nine in the contest earlier in the season, the Golden Bears recorded back-to-back four-goal quarters to open the game and put the match out of reach. Weinberg leads the MPSF with 177 saves this season.

Graduate student attacker Nicolas Saveljic, who has averaged 2.6 goals per game against the Golden Bears dating back to last season, said his team has improved since September.

“We saw them earlier in the season, but I know our team grew a lot since the last time we saw them,” Saveljic said. “We still have the biggest room, in my opinion, in the country to grow as a team and individuals.”

Averaging 14.7 goals per game, Cal comes in second in the nation behind only top-ranked USC. In UCLA’s only win in the last five meetings, they held Cal to eight goals.

Cal center Nikolaos Papanikolaou leads the conference in total goals and goals per game with 54 and 2.8, respectively. The 2020 MPSF Player of the Year, Papanikolaou has averaged 4.6 drawn exclusions per game in his last five matches against UCLA .

Saveljic, the winner of the 2020-2021 Peter J. Cutino Award, praised Papanikolaou and said the Golden Bears’ energy sets them apart from other MPSF opponents.

“The energy they bring is very intense,” Saveljic said. “They definitely have one of best players and definitely the best center in the league, Papanikolaou, who was a Cutino Award finalist last year. He’s very, very tough to guard.”

In addition to having the conference’s leading scorer, Cal boasts the two players with the most assists in the conference. Utility Jack Deely and attacker Miles O’Brien-Schridde are the only players with 30 or more assists in the MPSF.

Cal freshmen attackers Max Casabella and Roberto Valera have both earned multiple MPSF/KAP7 Newcomer of the Week honors this season. Casabella netted a hat trick earlier in the season versus UCLA while Valera ranks second in assists per game in the conference.

Despite Papanikolaou’s conference-topping goal stats, UCLA has held the center over a goal per game under his 2021 season average, allowing him only 1.6 goals per contest in the last five games against Cal. Wright said the junior’s offense in addition to Cal’s depth presents a unique challenge.

“They have players in every position and they have a really, really special player in the middle, Papanikolaou, and he commands a lot of attention,” Wright said. “This year, they’ve added even more players and shooters. It’s a really good team and we got a tough job in front of us.”

The contest also marks an opportunity for UCLA to earn a first-round bye in the MPSF tournament, awarded to the conference’s top two seeds. If the Bruins defeat the Golden Bears by two goals or more, they will earn the No. 1 seed in the MPSF tournament.

A one-score margin of victory where UCLA nets eight or more total goals will also result in the No. 1 seed for the Bruins, but seven goals or less in a one-goal win would leave them with a No. 2 seed.

A loss to the Golden Bears would demote the Bruins to the No. 3 seed and give UCLA the loser of Penn State Behrend and Austin College in the opening round Nov. 19.

With the MPSF regular-season title on the line in the Golden Bears’ senior day and the Bruins’ four-time national championship-winning coach removed from the pool deck, Saveljic said opportunities like these remind him of why he plays the game.

“The end of the season is approaching – tournaments, playoffs, and now the consequences of mistakes are obviously going to be way bigger,” Saveljic said. “But this is what we train for. This is why we prepare daily, for games like this.

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Kyle Boal | Sports senior staff
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
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