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Bruins in Paris

Casting her ball into the college net, Lauren Steele dives into decorated career

Freshman Lauren Steele moves her hand – which holds an illustration of a diploma – while blocking a ball with an illustration of a graduation cap. The goalkeeper was named Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA tournament. (Photo by Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin. Photo illustration by Mikayla Kwok/Daily Bruin)

By Una O'Farrell

June 10, 2024 3:48 p.m.

Lauren Steele wrote her victory speech for the national championship while her peers chose prom dresses and decorated their graduation caps.

Opting to graduate high school a semester early and eager to bolster UCLA women’s water polo’s pursuit of an eighth national title, the freshman goalkeeper plunged headfirst into college life.

By the end of her first season, she proved that sometimes, the early bird doesn’t just get the worm – it wins a national championship.

The Old Greenwich, Connecticut, local initially decided to travel to California to seize better opportunities for her water polo career amid a shortened season in her freshman year of high school due to COVID-19.

“It was always supposed to be for a short amount of time. I was only supposed to come out here for three months,” Steele said. “I did a water polo academy, did online classes, ended up staying the summer to play club out here – and the rest is history.”

After joining 6-8 Training Academy in Fountain Valley, California, the high school sensation was accepted to Orange Lutheran High School halfway through her freshman year, where she continued to develop her craft.

In her junior year, Steele led Orange Lutheran to the 2023 CIF Southern Section Open Division championship with 11 saves and was named the Orange County Register’s Player of the Year.

“That was the first big game I had won, and I learned what it took to win on a level like that,” Steele said. “Going into college, I knew I wanted to win here as well.”

Victory’s embrace swiftly became a familiar sensation to her.

After her premature departure from high school in December 2023, Steele immediately stepped into the central defensive role for the Bruins – amassing 268 saves in her first season to contribute to the team’s 26-0 record.

Steele extends her wingspan to block the goal.(Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

“This was a whole new experience for her,” said coach Adam Wright. “I’m excited to watch her become the best goalie in the world, and we’re excited to help her reach that goal.”

Wright played a role in deciding to fast-track Steele’s graduation and helping to lay out her water polo future both during and beyond her time at UCLA.

“The first permissible day we were able to meet in person, I met with her and her mom and laid out a plan,” Wright said. “I really believed, not only for our program’s best interest but timingwise for her possible endeavors with the national team after UCLA, starting early would be the best course.”

Wright’s confidence in the rookie’s abilities was promptly validated in the pool, as Steele went on to earn the starting nod in the cage every game this season.

UCLA’s perfect record – the program’s first since 2008 – came at the helm of Steele’s defensive contributions, earning the freshman the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

Despite shouldering the defensive undertaking at the inception of her transition to collegiate life, the 2024 MPSF Newcomer of the Year’s teammates said that outside of the pool, she couldn’t be more collected and relaxed.

“When you look at her play, you think she’s always locked in, she’s always serious,” said graduate student attacker Hannah Palmer. “But she’s one of a kind. She’s super goofy and so fun to be around.”

Steele shoots her hands up to block a ball. The freshman ended the season with 268 saves. (Zimo Li/Photo editor)

Steele’s teammate, senior attacker Malia Allen, said she is proud of the young goalkeeper’s impact on the team this season.

“She was so inspiring to me, and I’m a senior,” Allen said. “She’s a freshman coming in, graduating early, she’s not with her family a lot – and she just took the challenge and ran with it.”

Steele’s presence catalyzed the team’s resurgence to the top – breaking the record for most saves in a season by a UCLA freshman in addition to her seven goals throughout the season.

“That intensity hasn’t stopped,” Wright said. “That willingness to learn – the eagerness to learn – hasn’t stopped, and that’s what makes her so special.”

Among the slew of MPSF honors and MVP awards, the phenom was a women’s finalist for the Peter J. Cutino Award, which honors the top athletes in collegiate water polo.

The Cutino Award ceremony prevented Steele from attending her high school graduation ceremony in early June, but Steele said her pride swells as she reflects on the year’s achievements.

“I’m just excited to be able to say that I graduated. I’m having a celebration with my friends and family, and it’s cool to do it with a national championship.”

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Una O'Farrell
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