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‘UCLA women’s water polo is back on the map’: Adam Wright leads Bruins to NCAA win

Members of UCLA women’s water polo and coach Adam Wright tread water after jumping into the pool during the celebrations following the NCAA championship win. (Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

By Joseph Crosby

May 14, 2024 2:39 p.m.

This post was updated May 14 at 10:28 p.m.

Adam Wright is no stranger to winning the last game of the season.

The now-coach of both UCLA men’s and women’s water polo won two national championships as a Bruin and added four more in a seven-year span as coach of the men’s team.

But a championship on the women’s side proved elusive for Wright, whose two legendary predecessors – Guy Baker and Adam Krikorian – both won more titles with the women than the men, including three when Wright was a member of the men’s team.

Until now.

“It feels so good to see UCLA back on top because that’s what I was used to when I was at school,” Wright said.

Wright and UCLA finally broke through Sunday, defeating California 7-4 in the lowest-scoring NCAA championship game since 2018. The trip to the finals was just Wright’s second in six opportunities – after a COVID-canceled 2020 season bore no champion – and a total reversal of the drubbing Wright experienced in his first attempt in 2021.

After upsetting Stanford to reach the championship for the first time in Wright’s tenure, a rematch against USC, who had lost for the first time to UCLA three weeks prior, loomed.

The stage was set as the Bruins pursued their first title since Krikorian’s last in 2009, and the Trojans aimed to claim their second title in four years.

The ensuing battle went down in the history books, and not for the reasons Wright wanted.

USC shellacked UCLA at Spieker Aquatics Center 18-9, which still stands as the largest margin of victory in a championship game in NCAA women’s water polo history. 2021 MPSF Player of the Year Maud Megens – one of three Trojans with a hat trick – recorded six goals, while Bruin goalkeepers Jahmea Bent and Georgia Phillips combined for just three saves.

“None of us expected what transpired today to happen, and you got to digest it first,” Wright said after the loss. “We really should be motivated because we’re better than that.”

(Daily Bruin file photo)
Wright shrugs his shoulders. (Daily Bruin file photo)

Phillips broke out with a 285-save campaign the following year, good for All-MPSF Second Team honors. But UCLA fell in the NCAA semifinals to Stanford that year, a loss it would repeat in 2023.

In the wake of Phillips’ graduation, Wright needed a new backstop for 2024.

A new option presented itself in January.

Enter Lauren Steele – the freshman goalkeeper who should still be in high school.

“The very first day … that we could recruit, I met with her and her mom and laid out a plan about her coming early,” Wright said Sunday. “Lauren should be – she has a high school graduation to go to here, next month, I think it is.”

Steele burst onto the scene in 2024, starting in all 26 of the Bruins’ contests and saving 268 shots – nearly double the 139 goals she allowed – while also scoring seven times. She and the rest of UCLA’s defense held opposing teams to under 10 goals in 15 of the final 16 games of the campaign while keeping opponents to five or fewer goals six times.

And under the brightest lights, Steele delivered a performance for the ages.

Facing Cal, the freshman flipped the 2021 script with 17 saves, holding the Golden Bears to four goals – their lowest-scoring output of the season. Steele earned most outstanding player of the tournament for her efforts, which included 12 saves against Stanford the day prior and 16 against Wagner in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

Wright’s coaching efforts culminated in a perfect season and his first MPSF Coach of the Year honor with the women’s team.

Nearly seven years after his hiring on the women’s side, Wright finally joined Baker and Krikorian as UCLA coaches to not only lead both the men’s and women’s water polo teams but also win national championships.

“This means so much on so many different levels,” Wright said after Sunday’s game. “It’s taken a long time. UCLA women’s water polo is back on the map. And what this is going to do for our program for years to come is simply incredible.”

And with a young core here to stay, he may soon mimic Krikorian in another way.

Five consecutive national championships.

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Joseph Crosby | Sports editor
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
Crosby is the 2023-2024 Sports editor on the football, men's basketball and NIL beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the baseball, women's golf, men's water polo and women's water polo beats and a contributor on the baseball and women's golf beats. He is also a fourth-year statistics student.
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