Jan. 13, 2011
A motivated UCLA women's water polo team returns to the water in 2011 encouraged by its depth, team chemistry and experience. Eight seniors return this season, one year after the Bruins missed the NCAA title game on a team without any seniors.
The Bruins' senior class helped lead the program to back-to-back NCAA Championships as freshmen in 2008 and sophomores in 2009. Priscilla Orozco, Kelly Easterday and Megan Burmeister played instrumental roles on those two teams, and with a supporting cast of six juniors, nine sophomores and four freshmen, the veterans are looking to lead UCLA to its sixth NCAA title in the last seven seasons.
Head coach Brandon Brooks enters his second year at the helm of UCLA's women's water polo program. A two-time Olympian (2004, 2008) and a four-year men's water polo letterwinner for the Bruins (1999-2002), Brooks is most encouraged by the talent throughout UCLA's roster in 2011.
"I think the most exciting aspect about this team is that we have depth everywhere," Brooks said. "Not only do we have three really solid goalies, but we've got multiple skilled players at all the key positions. We have a pair of really strong centers, four players who can defend very well, a group of five quality drivers and three talented left-handers."
Among the most encouraging signs for Brooks and assistant coach Molly Cahill is that every starter and significant contributor returns from last season. In fact, UCLA brings back over 96 percent of its total offensive output from one year ago. Additionally, Brooks recruited four talented freshmen who are expected to push for playing time in 2011.
UCLA's offense will focus on the return of the program's top two goal scorers - Priscilla Orozco and Grace Reynolds. Orozco secured first-team ACWPC All-America acclaim in 2010, totaling 40 goals and a team-high 27 steals as a junior. The native of Commerce, Calif., enters her fourth season in Westwood having recorded 107 career goals at a 43.9 percent clip.
"Priscilla has been a mainstay for us for the last three seasons," Brooks said. "She got stronger in the offseason, which will help her put more power into her shot. She looks to have a great senior year for us."
Reynolds led the Bruins with 43 goals last year, her first season with the Bruins. A two-year standout center at California in 2007 and 2008, Reynolds transferred to UCLA for the 2010 season and thrived from the start. The native of Santa Ana, Calif., scored four goals in her first match for the Bruins, finishing the season with 14 multiple-goal efforts. She earned second-team ACWPC All-America and second-team All-MPSF honors.
"Grace brings a ton of experience to our program and is as talented as anyone in the country," Brooks said. "We are looking for her to be a huge presence for us, and we're excited to see how she elevates her game as a senior."
Another key scorer from the past two seasons, junior Sarah Orozco, looks to help UCLA as both an attacker and center. She has played in all 61 matches the last two seasons, having scored 21 goals on 51 attempts as a sophomore last season. The sister of teammate Priscilla Orozco, Sarah ranked third on the team with 25 earned exclusions in 2010.
"Sarah has been a tremendous part of our success the last two years," Brooks said. "She is such a versatile player because she can play center, she is a good driver and she has improved on the defensive end."
Other key scoring threats for UCLA include senior Kelsey McGinley and sophomore Leah Trella. McGinley has been a solid contributor the last three seasons, registering 22 goals on 50 attempts in 44 matches. The native of Laguna Hills, Calif., scored in the Bruins' 8-7 win over USC in the MPSF Tournament title match last spring before adding goals in the team's first two NCAA Tournament matches.
"We're looking for Kelsey to add quality minutes in each game for us this season," Brooks said. "She's been a very solid player for us as a reserve, but we know that she can carry a bigger role as a senior. She has the ability to make a very positive impact with her shooting and her quickness."
Trella, a sophomore from Huntington Beach, Calif., made consistent contributions as a freshman in 2010. She finished her rookie campaign with 14 goals and 19 steals in 21 matches. With one year of experience playing at the college level, Trella looks to have an even stronger season as a sophomore.
"Leah is very talented, very strong and very hard working," Brooks said. "She was hampered by an injury last year and had a hard time getting back in the pool. But I think we're going to be able to get more consistency from her this year. We're very excited to see what she will be able to do for us."
UCLA's defense will be anchored by Easterday and Burmeister, two stalwart defenders who have played major minutes over the past three seasons. Helping Easterday and Burmeister on the defensive end includes junior KK Clark, a 6-foot-2 product from Atherton, Calif., and sophomore Emily Greenwood, a 6-foot utility player hailing from Sanger, Calif.
Easterday has played in all 94 matches over the past three seasons, recording 41 goals, 37 steals, 16 assists and 10 blocks. The resident of Santa Barbara, Calif., was an honorable mention ACWPC All-America selection in 2010 and has captured ACWPC All-Academic Team accolades the past three seasons. Burmeister enters her senior season having totaled 37 goals and 43 steals in 88 matches. The native of Menlo Park, Calif., has twice secured ACWPC All-Academic Team honors.
"Kelly and Megan have been keys for us, defensively, the last three years," Brooks said. "Those two players have emerged as very strong, powerful defenders. They can hold their own against anybody. They're great communicators who can provide a lot of senior leadership on defense. They've been very consistent every day about putting in their work."
Clark made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2009, scoring 30 goals on 72 attempts. She followed her rookie year with 31 goals in 2010, the third-highest total on the team. In addition, Clark accrued 22 steals, 12 blocks and 19 earned exclusions last spring as a sophomore.
"KK Clark is going to impact every phase of the game for us," Brooks said. "She's tall, fast and has long arms. I think she will be much more consistent this year, in terms of putting shots away and have a higher percentage of shots on the cage. We look for her to be one of our leaders this season."
Greenwood was a consistent contributor as a freshman in 2010, totaling 17 goals and 10 steals in all 30 matches. A former standout on the USA Junior National Team, Greenwood had experience in the offseason training with the USA National Team.
"We used Emily a lot last season, and we look for her role to increase this year," Brooks said. "She communicates really well in the pool. Her experience with the national team is only going to help her improve. She's always a huge asset with her speed, and she has put in a lot of work on the offensive end."
At the center position, the Bruins will rely on Reynolds, Becca Dorst and Katie Estrada. Dorst, a 6-foot freshman from Menlo Park, Calif., thrived at Menlo-Atherton High School as a four-year varsity water polo and swimming letterwinner. Estrada has played in 40 games the past three seasons, adding 13 goals and three steals. Hailing from Coronado, Calif., Estrada is expected to push Reynolds and Dorst for playing time at center.
"While we expected Grace Reynolds to be a huge presence for us, Becca Dorst should challenge for playing time at that position," Brooks said. "She showed us in fall workouts that her water polo IQ is very high, especially for a freshman. She has a very good work ethic and a positive attitude toward putting in the work required at the collegiate level."
UCLA returns its primary two goalkeepers from last season - juniors Caitlin Dement and Kristen Simonds - and welcomes freshman Sami Hill. Dement established UCLA's single-season saves record with 264 stops in 2010. Hill enters the program having been a starting goalkeeper for the USA Junior National Team.
"Caitlin and Sami are two fantastic goalkeepers, and it's an open race at that position as we head into the season," Brooks said. "Caitlin was in her first year as the team's starting goalkeeper last season, and she broke the school's single-season saves record. On top of that, she returns one year stronger and one year wiser. Sami is very athletic and is determined to be the best that she can be. We've got a good situation in the cage this season."
The Bruins look toward 2011 with excitement, as the MPSF again promises to be the nation's toughest conference. UCLA, along with last season's NCAA Tournament finalists - Stanford and USC - are expected to contend for the national title. California, Hawai'i and San Diego State each defeated UCLA in 2010 and should pose threats as challengers again this spring.
"The MPSF is the strongest conference in the country, and nothing is going to change there," Brooks said. "The sport is getting a higher level of coaching. Anytime one of those jobs opens, whether from the MPSF or a neighboring program, you're going to get a more competitive applicant pool and that's only going to make our sport stronger."
As for what to expect in his second year as UCLA's head coach, Brooks cannot wait for the challenges that lie ahead.
"Year two has been much more stable," Brooks said. "There were a lot of ups and downs last year, which were to be expected as a first-year head coach on a team with a lot of youth. But when you're going through it, that's when you learn to adapt and react to certain situations. Our team is very excited for this year. We've been excited since the last day of last season to get back."