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.’”
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.”
He remembers watching Kostas Genidounias, arguably the Trojans’ top player, launch a shot toward the UCLA goal. As Danner lunged for the ball, he saw teammate Ryder Roberts reach out to block it. “Ryder was about two meters away from me, and a lot of times when you get a tip that close, it’s risky because it could deflect to another part of the cage where I’m not expecting the ball to go,” Danner says. “I remember thinking ‘Oh, crap’ when he started putting his hand up, but then he tipped it and it went over the cage, and everyone started cheering. It was awesome.”
The Bruins then ran down the clock to end the game, and the celebration began.
It was an especially memorable game for Bruin Danny McClintick, who had scored four goals and was named the tournament MVP. While senior co-captains Cristiano Mirarchi and Paul Reynolds are generally the Bruins’ top scorers, McClintick says that one of the team’s great strengths is the variety of players who can score. “Our scoring is very spread out,” he says. “You never know whose turn it’s going to be to step up to the plate. Every single game, we have a different leading scorer.”
Marshall, the Bruins’ big man, agrees. “Before every game, [Coach Wright] would say, ‘Someone’s moment will come today.’ And having that instilled in you every time you go into the pool makes you realize that if it’s your time, it’s your time.”
The key to the Bruins’ success, McClintick adds, is also one of the hardest things to do in sports: to approach everything the same way. “We approached that title game just like we approached the semifinals, just like we approached every game throughout the year. There was nothing that needed to be changed drastically,” he says. “I think we were 27-3 going into that tournament, and that’s a pretty good record. So the key wasn’t to change everything up. What had gotten us to that point was not crazy trick plays; it was just playing our style, playing our system and knowing that it’s the best system in the world.”
The man responsible for that system is Adam Wright, who just completed his sixth season as UCLA’s head coach and was recently named the NCAA Division I Coach of the Year. A former UCLA standout and three-time U.S. Olympian, Wright brims with pride when he talks about his players — not only because they won the national title, but also because they’ve grown so much over the past four years. Looking back at the beginning of the season, Wright now sees that he needn’t have lamented the loss of last year’s outstanding senior leader, Chris Wendt.
“I knew we had a great collection of seniors and younger players, but I was worried about how we were going to interact with each other in the water, out of the water. Who was going to be that leader?” Wright says. “So I decided over the summer to start meeting with all the seniors. I called them ‘the Great Eight.’”
The Great Eight — composed of Reynolds, Mirarchi, David Culpan, Chris Fahlsing, James Hartshorne, Daniel Lenhart, Christopher Meinhold and Stephen White — was a truly remarkable group, Wright says. Several of them were fifth-year players who had returned to the program, even though they weren’t on the traveling team. They had come back to see things through, even if their job was simply to be the best practice player they could be.
“I started meeting with the Great Eight and told them we would meet every couple of weeks to see where the team was, and part of that was a chance for me to try to find a leader,” Wright says. “After our first meeting, I saw I was wrong to worry about the leadership, because this group of eight players had what it took. I knew from that point on that we had great leadership. I didn’t have to lean on one guy so much; I could lean on a collection of seniors.”
Wright credits the scout (practice) team, composed of the redshirts and the players who didn’t travel, with being crucial to the team’s success. “It was the best scout team we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” he says. “The only way we’re all going to get better is if those guys are ready and prepared every day. And they did an unbelievable job.”
The coach also has nothing but praise for his travel group, including Reynolds, Mirarchi and McClintick. “Besides Paul’s impact on every game, his ability to show people how you’re supposed to train every day was the greatest contribution he’s given to this team,” Wright says. “Cristiano and Danny are the unsung heroes. They have to sacrifice their offense because they’re chasing the other team’s best players around the pool.”
Wright also lauded seniors Chris Fahlsing and David Culpan, who played critical roles in the championship game. Fahlsing logged several minutes and also served as a calming voice for the younger players, while Culpan entered the game for three minutes and scored a goal. “It’s not easy for these athletes who don’t get to play that much to be ready at a crucial moment,” Wright says. “It shows not only their commitment to the group, but also their focus.”
In Wright’s opinion, the Bruins have the best goalie in the country in Garrett Danner, the best center in Gordon Marshall and the two strongest defenders in Chancellor Ramirez and Anthony Daboub. All four are expected to return next season.
In July, the UCLA men’s water polo team will represent the United States at the World University Games in Gwangju City, South Korea. Usually, a country will send a team composed of top players from all its colleges, but the talented Bruins have been tapped for two World University Games in a row. In 2013, the UCLA team traveled to Kazan, Russia, and finished fifth in the competition — the best result for the United States in many years.
The Bruins are already hard at work practicing for this year’s World University Games. But they’re also allowing themselves time to bask in the glory of their hard-earned national championship and their victory over their crosstown rivals.
“USC had won six national championships and was the premier team to beat. For us to beat them three out of four times [in a season] was big for us,” Reynolds says. “I wouldn’t say this was the best game we compiled against them, because that’s not really how water polo works. But along with the maturation of our culture, it was like we were ready to do it. It was our time.”