Sept. 23, 2011
By Amy Hughes
UCLA water polo junior Josh Samuels grew up as the youngest of three kids in Villa Park, Calif.
"We've been swimmers our whole lives," said Samuels of himself and his siblings.
The eldest Samuels sibling, Angela, swam butterfly, breaststroke and individual medley for Loyola Marymount. Brother Albert, three years younger than Angela and two years older than Josh, is a redshirt senior for the 2011 LMU men's water polo team.
But Josh is quick to point out that although the three Samuels siblings all spent a great deal of time in the pool, he was first to get serious about water polo.
"We would swim from 5-7 at the club," said Samuels. "Then the polo team would go from 7-9. My sister started playing a little bit, then I'd jump in for a little splashing around. I probably played for a couple of months before my brother started. He tagged along. When people ask, I say I started the trend."
Josh Samuels was a top recruit coming out of Villa Park High School and the SoCal Water Polo Foundation, where he played club water polo. He chose to attend UCLA, despite his family history of two siblings already competing at LMU and his mother's family full of Cal alums.
"At least I'm not wearing red," joked Samuels of his college choice.
The second-ranked Bruins (5-1) return to action this weekend, hosting No. 5 Pepperdine (6-1) on Friday at 7 p.m. at Spieker Aquatics Center before traveling to No. 7 Loyola Marymount (5-2) for a match on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Saturday's match could be the final meeting between the Samuels brothers during their collegiate careers.
"We've played LMU every year that I've been [at UCLA]," said Samuels. "We played together for two years in high school, which was a lot of fun. Then he went to LMU and I came here. We played them twice my freshman year and again last year. Saturday will be the first time we face off this year, and potentially the last time."
In 2009, the Bruins posted a 10-5 regular season victory at LMU before topping the Lions, 9-8 in overtime in an NCAA Semifinal match in Princeton, N.J. Last season saw a 14-6 UCLA win at Spieker. The teams played in an exhibition tournament, but the elder Samuels brother, Albert, sat out due to shoulder surgery. Younger brother Josh is keen to preserve his undefeated record against his brother.
"I always like to play well against my brother," said Samuels, "but I try not to think about us. It's more about playing well for our team. But there's always a little extra incentive for beating your brother, especially when he's your older brother.
"He has never beaten me," said Josh of Albert. "My freshman year when we played at LMU, I guarded him one time and he did get me kicked out. He won that battle."
Chances are good that the Samuels brothers will match up again at the Burns Center on LMU's campus this weekend.
"I'll be looking to get him back," said Josh. "I'm pretty sure that we will be matched up quite a few times on Saturday."
This weekend's two games will be another strong measuring stick for the Bruins, who finished second last weekend at the NorCal Tournament in Stockton, Calif. For Samuels, his leadership role continues to grow with the team, a process that UCLA head coach Adam Wright has encouraged.
"Over the last two years," said Wright, "he has grown a lot and I expect him to continue to grow. He's a very important part of our team. He has the tools to become the kind of player that can take over a game, but he is still working on getting there."
In Samuels' first season with the Bruins, he played in all 30 matches during the 2009 season, a year that concluded with a loss to USC in the NCAA Championship match. His sophomore season ended in disappointing fashion as the Bruins finished fourth at the MPSF Championship and did not advance to the NCAA Tournament.
"Our season ended last year in a way we weren't happy with," said Wright. "Josh and I had a long talk. We went over a bunch of different things, and leadership was one of the main things."
That talk led to Samuels buckling down and putting in the effort to achieve his potential.
This was the hardest off-season I've ever been a part of," said Samuels. "My goal is to be one of the leaders on this team and hopefully be someone the guys can look for in a crucial moment. That covers a lot of things. I've been working a lot with my coaches on not having off-days in practice and trying to get better and not make mistakes. The difference here (compared to high school) is that you have to have effort and be focused every day. I worked a lot on that this off-season, as well as improving parts of my game so I can be one of the key guys in crunch time."
"I believe Josh has the makings to become an excellent player with hard work," said Wright. "I don't think he clearly understands how good he can become. One thing I always expressed to Josh is that not every athlete has God-given ability. Not every athlete has size and has the chance to become a great one. But if you don't fully commit yourself and you think it's just going to happen, you can get passed by people who don't have as much talent as you. He really took that to heart, and that's why I believe he can become a very special player."
Samuels has started down that path by putting in the necessary hard work during the off-season. After spending time with the Bruins during pre-season training, Samuels and four of his UCLA teammates headed to Europe with the United States Junior National Team for the Junior World Championships in Volos, Greece.
"As a coach," said Wright, "I urge my student-athletes to go do things like this because I really believe that experience and playing at that level will only help us down the road. Those are high-level games, and every game is a do-or-die situation. The reality is that in our sport with the MPSF and men's water polo at the NCAA level, only two teams go from our area. So the reality is that for college water polo, every game is do or die. One game could be the difference that costs you the chance to go to NCAAs. I believe the more times you can play in those kinds of situations, the better off you're going to be."
Samuels now has two Junior World Championships under his belt, and has noticed the improvements created by his winter of hard work.
"I think that hard work pays off if you have the right focus and the right frame of mind," said Samuels. "I definitely saw improvements from the time I put in at UCLA. I saw it translate overseas."