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Nothing But Net


By Wendy Soderburg '82

Published Apr 1, 2015 8:00 AM

Men's Water Polo defeated USC to win UCLA's 112th NCAA title.

Attacker Ryder Roberts (left) and Paul Reynolds battle for the ball.

There was no Gatorade bath for Head Coach Adam Wright ’01 when his UCLA men’s water polo team claimed the 2014 NCAA championship last December. There was no need. When time ran out in the title game between crosstown rivals UCLA and USC — a thrilling battle that the Bruins won, 9-8 — Wright’s players bypassed the traditional sports drink and jubilantly tossed their coach into the pool. Wright was soon joined in the water by his two assistant coaches, Dustin Litvak and Scott Swanson, followed by the weight-lifting coach, the former weightlifting coach, the team’s sport psychologist — anyone within reach of the players. No one was spared. Gordon Marshall, the Bruins’ 6’7” sophomore center from Australia who scored the game-winning goal, says it took him a moment before it all sank in. “I literally stood back for a second and just watched,” he says. “I saw Adam going crazy, and it really got me jacked up. Once the time had run out, everyone was into the pool. It was just pure joy.”

This championship — UCLA’s ninth in men’s water polo and 112th overall — was especially meaningful because it was the Bruin men’s first water polo title since 2004 and had come at the expense of USC, who had won the last six titles. In fact, the rivalry between the two schools in men’s water polo is as intense as it is in football or men’s basketball, maybe even more so. This was the fourth national championship game UCLA had played in over the previous six years, each against USC. The Trojans beat the Bruins to win the title in 2009, 2011 and 2012 — but that streak was about to end.

A large and spirited group of UCLA fans had traveled to UC San Diego’s Canyonview Aquatic Center to watch their team play in the sold-out 2014 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship on December 6 and 7. The Bruins, ranked No. 1 going into the tournament, easily defeated UC San Diego, 15-6, in the first semifinal, while USC beat Stanford, 12-11, in the second semifinal. That set the stage for UCLA and USC to meet in the championship game.

“It needed to be ’SC,” says UCLA co-captain Paul Reynolds. “We were chomping at the bit. You know that old saying in sports — ‘It’s hard to beat a good team three times in a row’? We had beaten them three times out of four this year, and we were on a two-game winning streak. In the past, we’d had our chances but never capitalized on them. This year, we said, ‘We’re going to stick it to them.’ ”

Goalie Alek Ruzic uses his head

The Bruins started out strong and jumped to an early 2-0 lead in the first quarter with goals by sophomore defender Chancellor Ramirez and redshirt freshman center Matt Farmer. The Trojans scored in the second quarter to cut the lead to one, but a goal by Bruin junior utility Danny McClintick pushed the score to 3-1. USC answered with a power play goal to trim the lead to one again, but UCLA senior attacker David Culpan scored to give the Bruins a 4-2 lead.

The Trojans opened the third quarter with another power play goal to cut the lead to one, but McClintick stepped up again and scored the next two goals to build a 6-3 Bruin lead. USC answered with another goal to make the score 6-4, and then Bruin sophomore attacker Jack Fellner ended the third period with a half-tank goal at the buzzer, giving UCLA a 7-4 lead going into the final quarter.

That’s when the game got really intense. The Trojans scored the next three goals to tie the game at 7-7. McClintick gave the Bruins an 8-7 lead at the 3:13 mark, but then USC tied it at 8-8 with 2:50 remaining. UCLA’s Marshall, who had been double- and triple-teamed all afternoon, suddenly found himself open and rocketed the ball into the net. The score was now 9-8. Time left: 34 seconds.

Goalie Garrett Danner recalls, “I was just super-jazzed that we had scored. Then when [USC] came back and lined up against us, and we were on defense, I just remember thinking that there was no way they were scoring. There was no way.”