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UCLA men’s water polo conquers Cal to claim victory at Overnght/MPSF Invitational

Senior attacker Rafael Real Vergara attempts to block a pass against Stanford at Spieker Aquatics Center on Sept. 9. (Julia Zhou/Assistant Photo editor)

Men’s water polo


Occidental9
No. 2 UCLA18
No. 2 UCLA15
No. 4 Pepperdine11
No. 2 UCLA14
No. 3 USC10
No. 2 UCLA12
No. 1 California10

By Benjamin Royer

Sept. 25, 2023 12:13 p.m.

Defeat the king to take his crown.

With one fell swoop, the Bruins did just that.

No. 2 UCLA men’s water polo (13-0, 1-0 MPSF) is set to sit atop the NCAA’s throne following its 12-10 victory Sunday over the previously undefeated No. 1 California (12-1, 1-0), claiming the Overnght/MPSF Invitational title against the Golden Bears. The Bruins will likely emerge atop the rankings when they are released Wednesday.

“This weekend was really special,” said coach Adam Wright. “It’s a great stepping stone to build off. The nice part is the guys really got to see when they channeled or focused on the right things – and coming in with the right defensive mindset – special things can happen.”

UCLA defeated No. 4 Pepperdine and No. 3 USC on Saturday before taking down the top-ranked Cal – in the process snapping its 15-game winning streak – the following afternoon at the Trojans’ Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

But on Friday in Westwood, UCLA faced an early upset bid from an unranked foe.

The only time UCLA led by only one at the break across the weekend was against Occidental, leaving the Bruins to trust their depth to emerge victorious, Wright said.

“To be honest, we didn’t do a great job with that, but we turned it around in the second half, and it was the same guys that started the first half,” Wright said about the Bruins’ eventual 18-9 triumph. “For me, the big thing is (that) the group is really growing closely together.”

When the action moved down Interstate 10 to USC, the offensive seas opened up. UCLA’s defense and senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs shut down opposing attacks when necessary, most notably holding Cal to just one score goal in the fourth period of the final.

Amid a seven-game losing streak against the Golden Bears, including last year’s MPSF conference championship, redshirt senior attacker Jack Larsen said the opportunity to return the favor early in 2023 was cathartic.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve beat that team (Cal),” Larsen said. “We tried not to think about that as much and just play our game, and it worked out. But in retrospect, it feels really good.”

The victory against the Golden Bears was also familial for Jack Larsen, as he provided an assist in the first period to his younger brother – redshirt freshman utility Ben Larsen – for an early 3-1 lead.

Redshirt senior attacker Jack Larsen lifts his arm upward in a defensive position against Stanford at Spieker Aquatics Center on Sept. 9. (Julia Zhou/Assistant Photo editor)
Redshirt senior attacker Jack Larsen lifts his arm upward in a defensive position against Stanford at Spieker Aquatics Center on Sept. 9. (Julia Zhou/Assistant Photo editor)

The Larsen-to-Larsen connection was Ben Larsen’s fourth consecutive game with a goal and the first time the eldest brother had converted an assist for his sibling.

“Oh my gosh, that was just beyond special,” Jack Larsen said. “I’m so grateful that I get the opportunity to be in the same pool with him. And to give him an assist, it really meant the world. I’ll remember that forever.”

Jack Larsen’s three goals of his own helped clinch the victory against Cal, but he wasn’t the only Bruin to create a goal-scoring spark.

Senior attacker Rafael Real Vergara – who scored 16 combined goals against the Waves, Trojans and Golden Bears – now sits atop the MPSF and NCAA goals leaderboard with 35 after previously sitting in fifth before Friday’s action.

The Long Beach State transfer and two-time Gold Coast Conference Player of the Year led or co-led scoring in all three games in which he played, including netting seven of his nine shots to help UCLA defeat USC 14-10 in the semifinal.

“That’s what we’ve been training for the whole season – for these key moments, for these big teams,” Real Vergara said. “And those games (against Pepperdine, USC and Cal) are always good markers to show where we’re at and, after the game, to where we want to go.”

Real Vergara added that defeating Cal after four years of winless results playing for Long Beach showcased his and the team’s mental strength.

“I’ve been waiting four years to beat Berkeley,” Real Vergara said. “It just shows how much, how resilient our team is, how strong we are on defense and how strong mentally we are.”

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Benjamin Royer | Assistant Sports editor
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
Royer is the 2023-2024 Assistant Sports editor on the baseball, gymnastics and men's water polo beats and a reporter on the football beat. He was previously a staff writer on the baseball, football and gymnastics beats. He is also a fourth-year communication student.
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