Aug. 29, 2000
Defending a national championship may be one of the most difficult things to do, but the 2000 UCLA men's water polo squad has all the necessary components to claim back-to-back titles for the third time in school history.
Led by six seniors, including 1999 NCAA Player of the Year Sean Kern and three-time All-American Adam Wright, the Bruins have a wealth of experience from which to draw this season. The Bruins also return 16 letterwinners from last season's national championship squad.
"Our senior class is most likely the most talented class we've ever had here at UCLA," second-year Co-Head Coach Adam Krikorian said. "All six , more than likely, will be starters. They are going to provide us with knowledge, with effort, with hunger, with competitiveness. They are the leaders of this team and they are going to take us as far as we want to go." That experience, coupled with team speed and a powerful counter attack, can provide UCLA with the necessary components to capture the school's seventh national title. "I think we're one of the fastest teams, if not the fastest, out there," Krikorian said. "We can create a lot of opportunities just on our counter attack. It's a very exciting team to watch. We play a very up-tempo type of game."
And, according to Krikorian, the key for putting those pieces together will be the mental approach the Bruins bring to the pool in 2000. "We are going to have to keep that hunger and keep that fire burning if we want to win a championship this year," he said. "That will be the test. It's not easy for teams to repeat. A lot of teams have folded and taken for granted the experience they have. We can't rest on what we did last year. It's a brand new season." The task at hand will be a challenge for the Bruins as almost any team in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation is a viable threat to make a run for a title. Arch-rivals USC and Stanford won't be the only opponents standing in the Bruins' way.
An additional hurdle for UCLA to overcome early in the season will be the temporary absence of Kern who will be representing the United States in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Kern joins former Bruin Dan Hackett on the men's Olympic team, while UCLA Co-Head Coach Guy Baker will also miss the first half of the season as the head coach for the U.S. women's Olympic team.
While the Olympians are hard at work, it will be business as usual for the Bruins in Westwood. Kern's two-meter position will be a difficult hole to fill, as the three-time All-American and first-ever recipient of the Peter J. Cutino Award has led UCLA in scoring for the past three years, including a career-high 55 points last season.
"Without Sean being there it's going to be difficult, but the guys are looking forward to the challenge," Krikorian said. "And it might only help us in providing the hunger that we need." Senior Dave Parker will be the go-to guy in Kern's absence at the two-meter position. "Dave will be getting a ton of minutes. He's had a great off-season and we're all looking forward to watching him do well," Krikorian said.
This year's senior class is rounded out by Wright, honorable mention All-Americans Brian Brown and Blake Wellen, along with Andy Bailey. Wright, who trained with the U.S. National Team this past summer, will be a co-captain for this year's squad for the second straight season. Kern will join Wright as a co-captain.
As a junior, Wright was second in team scoring and nearly doubled his career-high mark with 48 points. "Adam pretty much sets the table and is the quarterback of our offense, he runs the show," Krikorian said. "He's our leader, a dynamic player. He does a lot of little things that go unnoticed and can help us a lot in many ways. He's a very versatile player."
Wellen, Brown and Bailey will provide the Bruins with consistent defensive play. Wellen, who earned All-America accolades for the first time in his career last year, ended 1999 tied for the team lead with seven field saves. Wellen also came through in the clutch offensively last season, scoring the game-winning goal with one second left in overtime versus Stanford in the MPSF championship game. "Blake is one of our main two-meter defenders. He did a great job last year. He's very skilled at that position," Krikorian said.
Brown and Bailey will once again anchor the defense and serve as catalysts for the Bruins' lethal counter attack. "They are two of the best defenders in the nation. They both create a lot of opportunities with their defensive skills and they will be two of our leaders on our fast breaks," Krikorian said.
Sophomore Brandon Brooks returns as the starting goalie after a very successful freshman campaign, which included earning honorable mention All-America honors. Brooks, the only true freshman on the 1999 playing roster, provided the Bruins with outstanding play in the net throughout the post-season campaign. A versatile athlete, Brooks was a member of the 1999-2000 men's basketball team as well.
Off the bench, juniors Jeff Pflueger and Alfonso Tucay and sophomores Matt Flesher and Kyle Baumgarner will be called upon to play specific roles. Tucay will serve as the back-up two-meter man to Parker in Kern's absence. Pflueger, whose speed will help facilitate the fast break and counter attack, can come in as a defensive replacement.
Flesher will contribute as a two-meter defender and is one of the Bruins' main outside shooting threats. "Matt's biggest strength for us will be his outside shooting," Krikorian said. "He'll help us a lot in that area, as well as on our six-on-five opportunities. Kyle will also bring a tremendous amount of speed. He is one of the fastest guys on the team and has an excellent outside shot as well."
The only newcomer to the playing roster this year will be true freshman Albert Garcia from Wilson High in Long Beach. "Albert's a very quick, fast player," Krikorian said. "He shoots the ball well and creates scoring opportunities. He'll add a bit coming off the bench and I think he'll be a perfect fit for the team."
With all the components seemingly in place, the Bruins will be a force to reckon with in 2000.