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In Their Element


By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Mar 14, 2018 2:45 PM

UCLA's men's water polo team made a splash when they won an NCAA championship last December.

UCLA Photo by Don Liebig.

On December 3, while most of us were just starting to think about holiday preparations, the UCLA men’s water polo team gave Bruin fans an early Christmas present: the school’s 114th NCAA championship. It was the men’s 11th national championship and third title in the last four years, and they did it in fine fashion — by defeating their archrivals, third-seeded USC, in their home pool.

Surprisingly, the Bruins’ 7-5 victory over the Trojans in the championship game at USC's Uytengsu Aquatics Center came at the end of what was supposed to be a “rebuilding” year for UCLA. The team had lost nine players to graduation in 2016, and with six true freshmen and a redshirt sophomore goalkeeper expected to play major minutes, the Bruins weren’t even predicted to finish in the top three.

Even Head Coach Adam Wright ’01 admitted to a roller-coaster of emotions, ranging from early optimism in the off-season to doubt after losses to UC Irvine and Cal. But it was after a hard-fought loss to Stanford at The Farm that Wright started to believe his team could win it all.

“We didn’t win, but we played well, and I remember telling the guys, ‘I know you’re disappointed, but trust me, there are a lot of positives from this game,’” Wright says. “I knew at that point that this group, for sure, had a chance at it.”

A huge strength for UCLA, from Wright’s point of view, was the leadership of his seven seniors — Alex Roelse, Matt Farmer, Max Irving, Aleksandar Ruzic, Jesse Camou, James Robinson and Jack Grover. “Their motto was ‘Our time is now,’ and man, they not only grew more than any other group I’ve had, but as far as becoming leaders and enhancing our culture, they rose to the occasion and elevated the bar of what it means to take on that role,” Wright says.

Roelse, a utility player who scored two goals in the championship game and was named to the First Team All-Tournament, says he enjoyed UCLA’s underdog status going into the tournament. “We went into it as No. 1, but many outsiders doubted that we should have been there at all,” he says. “I personally knew what our team had gone through to accomplish such a feat, so it was fun battling against the odds. It was nice to show that we deserved that No. 1 seed because of the work we put into it.”

The Bruins knew that the game against USC would be difficult, but they were up for the challenge. “It’s always exciting any time you’re playing your rival, and the fact that we were doing so for a national championship, in their own pool, made the victory that much sweeter,” says UCLA’s sophomore goalie Alex Wolf, the tournament MVP.

If there’s a “problem” with winning championships, it’s that it’s addictive, Wright says. “That feeling you have for a few minutes — you wish you could bottle it up and have it all the time,” he says. “I can’t even describe what those few minutes feel like, and you want it again. And you want it again. And that’s why we keep coming back to work.”