NCAA Water Polo Champions 2015

Men's Water Polo Ready for 1998

Bruins loaded with potential.

September 1, 1998

LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA men's water polo team that takes to the pool in 1998 will be a better squad than the 1997 version that finished the season ranked sixth in the nation. On paper, the '98 Bruins can boast size, speed, leadership, knowledge and experience.

"This team has real potential," said head coach Guy Baker. "But we still have to show that we can play together, and we have to see how we respond when it really counts."

It really counts in December at the NCAA Championships, and the Bruins are anxious to make another run at the title they captured in 1995 and '96. But before the NCAAs, there is the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) Championship, and in 1998 the MPSF should live up to its reputation as the toughest water polo league in the country. Stanford returns all its players and is likely to be a contender for the national title, while California, USC, defending national champion Pepperdine, and UC Irvine have key players returning and a lengthy history of successful water polo. Because only two teams from the league can earn an invitation to the NCAA Championships, each conference match is important to UCLA's post-season goals. The 1998 UCLA squad is still young, losing only three veteran players from last year's team. But Baker expects that the experience and maturity gained in 1997 will help the Bruins find success.

"Our young players are getting older and team roles are more clearly defined," he said. "We won't be sorting things out during the season the way we did last year. We are also playing better as a team."

To keep the team together, Baker and assistant coach Adam Krikorian will look to three seniors to step up to leadership roles vacated by the graduation of Steve Covec and All-American Brett Stern and redshirt All-American Matt Armato. Seniors Sam Grayeli, Aaron Harries, and Eric Helfer are experienced players that look to use the team's size and speed to lead UCLA back to the national playoff picture.

"We have good size," said Baker. "We should be able to match up in most situations. We also have good team speed and if we use our quickness correctly, we could be one of the fastest teams."

Helfer is one of the keys to the Baker Boys' quickness. "He's one of the faster guys on this team, and a leader for our fast-breaks," Baker said.

Helfer has made continual progress each year and figures to earn a significant amount of playing time. The coaching staff will also look to the 5-11 Hawai'i native to be a major force on defense. Fellow senior Harries is expected to make key contributions to UCLA's defense, marking the opposition at two meters with his 6-4 frame.

Baker will count on Grayeli, who had an impressive off season, to bring his skills into the regular season and provide the Bruins with crucial outside scoring. "Grayeli has the capabilities to be a leading scorer," said Baker. The 6-0 attacker from Costa Mesa was fourth on the Bruins' scoring list last season, with 25 goals.

All-American sophomore Sean Kern, a 6-6 two-meter offense player from Honolulu, HI, is expected to build on a highly successful freshman campaign, in which he scored a team-high 41 goals. Kern was the only freshman named to the three 1997 All-America teams and was also named to the All-MPSF third team.

"As a freshman two-meter man, Kern had so much to learn as we went along," Baker said. "This season, he is stronger, faster and has improved his skills. We're looking for him to show more consistency this year, and continue to grow and get better."

At the other end of the pool, junior Parsa Bonderson will be holding down the cage. The 6-2 goalkeeper from Santa Barbara had a solid off season and is much more comfortable in goal going into '98. Bonderson played 67 quarters last season, making 133 saves.

Also playing key minutes will be sophomores Blake Wellen and Adam Wright. "Wellen had a productive off-season and he has tremendous physical talent. He's starting to put it all together," said Baker.

The coaching staff will look to Wellen and Wright to play consistent water polo and provide a physical presence for the Bruins. Baker will also depend on Wright to analyze game situations and act quickly, similar to a basketball point guard.

"Wright knows the game as well as anybody," said Baker.

In addition, Wright needs to establish himself on the Bruin counter-attack in order for UCLA to be successful. Sophomores Dave Parker, Andy Bailey and Brian Brown, along with juniors Neil Hueston and James Palda, return to UCLA's lineup with a wealth of experience and enthusiasm. The year of growth and maturity in 1997 will supply these players with a strong base coming into the 1998 season.

"We're taking it one step at a time," said Baker. "We're doing whatever we have to do to win and get to the NCAA Tournament. If we're going to be successful, we have to play as a team, on both offense and defense."

So Baker and the boys will focus on team play and use what they learned in '97 to make 1998 a success.