Jan. 20, 2009
For the UCLA women's water polo program, this season is nothing new. The Bruins open the season as defending NCAA champions for the fourth consecutive year while looking to overcome the loss of several talented seniors. Yet during Adam Krikorian's 10-year tenure as head coach, the Bruins have had a knack for reloading in the offseason and making it look as if the team never skipped a beat.
The defending national champs will look to their five seniors to lead a young team that features 10 sophomores and eight freshmen. Bolstered by their trio of talented senior attackers - Anne Belden, Tanya Gandy and Katie Rulon - the Bruins certainly possess the firepower to compete for the MPSF crown and NCAA title, yet again. That trio alone combined for 32 percent of UCLA's goals in 2008.
Rulon led all scorers with 62 goals one year ago, finishing 11th among MPSF players with 1.88 goals per game. Gandy, who trained with the U.S. National Team prior to the 2008 Olympics, finished her junior season with 47 goals, and Belden registered 22.
"Every time Katie touches the ball, she is a threat to score," Krikorian said. "She and Tanya Gandy are similar players, in that they are both very talented and gifted, offensively. Anne is one of the most intelligent players in the country, in terms of knowing where she needs to be and knowing how we want to play."
Among the team's youth, sophomore Priscilla Orozco contributed significantly in her first season in Westwood, scoring 25 goals en route to earning All-MPSF Freshman Team honors. Orozco, who is joined on the team this spring by younger sister Sarah, played in all 33 matches and scored at least one goal in 18 contests.
"Priscilla is creative and very intelligent, and she can be a leader in her own right," Krikorian said. "At times last year, she was probably a little overshadowed by some of the older, more experienced players. But I believe this year will be her time to flourish."
While the Bruins' current sophomore class did not see considerable playing time as freshmen, several attackers have the opportunity to challenge for playing time this season. Left-handers Monica Powers and Noel Umphrey have the ability to establish themselves on the right side of the pool. Additionally, right-handers Kelsey McGinley and Camy Sullivan will be expected to compete for greater playing time this season.
"There will be a lot of good competition in the pool this season," Krikorian said. "There are a number of girls who have the chance to compete and get into the rotation, to prove that they can help us out in tough situations and in big games."
Defensively, the Bruins will rely on their youth. Sophomores Megan Burmeister and Kelly Easterday were two freshmen that saw considerable playing time last spring. Burmeister scored 10 goals in 27 games, and Easterday logged seven goals in all 33 games before capturing All-MPSF Freshman Team honors. A year older and a year wiser, those two defenders figure to play a prominent role in the pool this season.
"Megan will play a much bigger role than she did last season," Krikorian said. "She's a very strong, physical athlete who plays with a lot of intensity. Kelly is another strong, physical player. She is a true competitor who made a huge contribution to our national championship last year and will only contribute more this season."
Freshmen KK Clark and Nicole Barker will compete for playing time on the defensive end. Clark, a 6-foot-2 utility player from Menlo Park, Calif., impressed in preseason workouts and will be expected to contribute from the start. Barker, a 5-foot-10 defender from Huntington Beach, Calif., helped lead the SET Water Polo Club to a 20-and-under national championship last year.
"KK is long and fast, moves very well in the water and has unlimited potential," Krikorian said. "Nicole really has the physical tools and will have to make that next step to the college level. She, too, has the ability to be effective on defense."
At the center position, the Bruins will rely on a combination of players - senior Kim Nelson, sophomore Katie Estrada and freshmen Sarah Orozco and Randi Bresee. Nelson has played sparingly the past three seasons but is familiar with the system and will be counted on down low.
"Kim Nelson is a great leader for us, has a tremendous work ethic and has been an incredible teammate," Krikorian said. "We'll look for her to help us this season. Sarah, Randi and Katie will all battle for playing time at the position and will undoubtedly grow as they gain more experience."
Among the team's most talented players and veteran athletes is senior goalkeeper Brittany Fullen, who broke the UCLA single-season saves record with 237 stops in her first full season of action last spring. Fullen, who served as the Bruins' backup goalkeeper to Emily Feher in 2006 and 2007, started all 33 games one year ago, recording a 4.73 goals against average. Fullen will be pushed by freshmen Caitlin Dement and Kristen Simonds and sophomore Morgan Ronimus.
"Brittany has emerged as one of the best goalies in the country," Krikorian said. "She is a great leader who provides a calming sense. With one year under her belt, I look forward to seeing her elevate her game and play with even more confidence."
Looking at UCLA's 2009 schedule, one of the most distinctive differences lies in the reshuffling of conferences. The Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) reduced its size from 13 teams to eight, resulting in a more competitive conference from top to bottom. In addition to the MPSF realignment, the Bruins schedule features the bulk of its matches within in the first two months.
"We are going to be tested right out of the gate," Krikorian said. "With a fairly young team, it will be great to get some experience early and play in several big matches."
The Bruins open the season at the Michigan Invitational in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Jan 24-25). Following a non-conference match against Long Beach State (Feb. 5) and entry in the Stanford Invitational (Feb. 7-8), UCLA opens its home portion and MPSF slate against San Diego State on Friday, Feb. 13.
During a one-month span midway through the season (Feb. 13-March 14), UCLA will play 14 of its 27 regular season matches, including five of seven conference games. The Bruins conclude the regular season with back-to-back conference contests - at Stanford (April 3) and at home versus USC (April 11). Postseason play features the MPSF Tournament at Hawai'i and the NCAA Tournament at Maryland.
"As we look at this team and our conference schedule, there is no question in my mind that we will be a better team by April than at the end of January," Krikorian said. "But our key is to speed up that process as fast as we can. We want to be the best team we can be early, because we are going to be challenged from the start."