Aug. 30, 2001
The 2001 UCLA men's water polo team will look markedly different from the group that won the last two NCAA championships. Gone are six senior starters who accounted for 183 of the Bruins' 272 goals (67 percent) in 2000, including two-time national Player of the Year Sean Kern and first-team All-American Brian Brown, who led the club with 43 goals.
All is not lost however, as UCLA returns All-American goalkeeper Brandon Brooks and honorable mention two-meter defender Matt Flesher. Two other returners, Alfonso Tucay and Jeff Pflueger, will step into new roles as starters.
The other starting positions won't be ironed out until the early part of the season. There will be healthy competition for playing time between the eight other returning letterwinners and two or three stars of the incoming freshman class, according to Head Coach Adam Krikorian. "Our guys have the talent to compete against the best," Krikorian said. "We're strong up the middle of the pool. All we lack is experience."
Since Brooks took over as UCLA's starting goalkeeper halfway through the 1999 season, the Bruins have posted a 29-8 record. The junior from Honolulu has made a splash at the collegiate and national levels, winning two national titles and starting for the U.S. Junior National team. Krikorian's praise is unequivocal.
"He is the most athletic player we've ever had at UCLA," Krikorian said. "His combination of size, strength, reach, and mental preparation is formidable. Brandon is determined to be one of the best goalkeepers in the nation, and he's made it happen."
Brooks is second to none among goalkeepers in Bruin history. He holds team records for career and season goals-against average and figures to see most of the playing time in 2001. Redshirt freshman Joseph Axelrad will back up Brooks, as he did for the U.S. Junior National Team at the Junior World Championships at Istanbul in August.
Flesher, who started 18 games at driver and two-meter defense a year ago, will be the Bruins' primary defender in front of Brooks. Flesher also possesses one of the best outside shots in the country, tallying 32 goals last season while developing a palpable presence in and out of the pool. "Matt is one of our most emotional and inspirational leaders," Krikorian said.
Junior Dan Yeilding will be the Bruins' reserve defender and has great potential to excel this year, according to Krikorian.
UCLA's attack will be orchestrated by seniors Pflueger and Jon Puffer, two proven reserves off last year's team. Pflueger combines speed with a powerful outside shot, while Puffer is solid in all phases of his game. Both are athletic and lethal on the counterattack, and will each see significant playing time.
A pair of left-handers, junior Ryan Brown and sophomore Nick Pacelli, will share time distributing the ball to teammates from the right side of the pool. Both are veterans of the Bruin program although they have yet to see much game action.
Three freshmen look to have significant impacts in their first year at UCLA. Krikorian expects Brett Ormsby, one of the top recruits in the nation, to contribute right away. "Brett is a skilled shooter, a very intelligent player, and I expect him to play older than he is," Krikorian said. "He shows a lot more maturity than a normal freshman does."
Peter Belden and Josh Hewko, who were prolific scorers in high school competition, will concentrate more on harassing opposing drivers. "They are both quick and can provide a spark on our counterattack as well as on defense," Krikorian said.
Tucay will be the primary playmaker and opportunist in front of the opponents' net this season. That may appear to be a tall order for Tucay, who has five career goals and has never started for UCLA, but his coach is confident.
"Alfonso has good size and an outstanding work ethic, and has shown tremendous improvement over the last four years," Krikorian said. "He worked hard in the offseason and will have a good season for us."
Many of UCLA's foes in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation will experience the same growing pains the Bruins face in the upcoming season. The youth infusion promises to provide a wide-open race for conference position. "There will be lots of competition and teams will have to play more guys with little experience," Krikorian said. "It will be a dogfight."
The Bruins' quest for three NCAA titles in a row will likely go through Stanford, Cal, and USC. There are no clear-cut favorites, and Krikorian expects many one-goal conference games. Other contenders for the national championship include UC San Diego, runner-up to the Bruins at last year's national tournament, and Loyola Marymount.