Saturday, May 18

UCLA men’s water polo falls short to California in national championship

Members of UCLA men’s water polo embrace each other after the final buzzer blared at Uytengsu Aquatics Center. UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond stands with team staff in the background after the Bruins’ 13-11 defeat. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Men’s water polo

No. 2 seed Cal13
No. 1 seed UCLA11

This post was updated Dec. 3 at 11:04 p.m.

UCLA defeated California three times in 2023.

Once in September and twice in October, the Bruins enacted revenge on the team that previously served them seven straight losses entering the year.

But on the fourth occasion the programs met – on the grandest stage of the year – it was the Golden Bears who would go home with a third consecutive championship, leaving the Bruins empty-handed and with an all-too-familiar feeling of losing to their Northern California foes.

“This is not how we ever want to end, but unfortunately in sport, only one person ends on top,” coach Adam Wright said. “That’s the fourth time we played Cal, and we ended up with Cal 3-1. … This will hurt for a while.”

No. 1 seed UCLA men’s water polo (26-3, 7-0 MPSF) fell to No. 2 seed Cal (24-5, 3-3) on Sunday afternoon at Uytengsu Aquatics Center 13-11, ending its campaign with its only three losses coming out of its final five games.

Wright pointed to one man for keeping the Bruins in check Sunday. Drawing 11 exclusions, Cal center Nikolaos Papanikolaou kept UCLA in foul trouble throughout the contest. Papanikolaou opened up the pool for attackers Max Casabella and Roberto Valera, who scored five and four goals, respectively – nine of Cal’s 13 goals.

“We haven’t seen a kid like that (Papanikolaou) make an impact at the collegiate level in a long time,” Wright said. “The position he plays, the attention he draws, his hands, his ability – he’s mobile, and he’s a really special player.”

UCLA led just once Sunday, and it came on its second possession.

Freshman center Marcell Szécsi struck the back of the net in the first minute of the game. The Golden Bears returned the favor, as they would all game long, within the same minute and pushed ahead for a 4-2 lead to enter the second period, where Cal’s offensive success would continue.

Senior attacker Rafael Real Vergara winds back with his right arm to shoot against California in the national championship at Uytengsu Aquatics Center. Real Vergara ended the game with three goals in nine shots. (Myka Fromm/Assistant Photo editor)

The Golden Bears fired heavily to begin the second period with back-to-back goals from Casabella and Papanikolaou to advance their lead to four. A buzzer-beater goal by senior attacker Rafael Real Vergara – who would score a hat trick – would not be enough for the Bruins heading into the third quarter with a three-point deficit.

The second half would only snowball. Following a yellow-red card for Wright – his second penalty of the game – the deficit doubled to six, minutes into the third period.

“It’s really hard to defend, but I felt like we were just a little off on our game plan, what we wanted to do and blocking the ball,” senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs said. “I didn’t have the best game, … but you got to give them credit. They’re a really good team offensively and put the ball in the net.”

As the sun set in the third quarter, the Bruins began to rise – trying to etch their way back to glory. UCLA scored four in a row to claw back and get within two of Cal.

“Once we started stopping their offense, our offense started working better, because once you’re not doing well on defense, it passes into offense,” Real Vergara said. “That’s what led us to have a better second half.”

But it was too little too late, as Cal kept UCLA scoreless from just over the three-minute mark, staving off any last-chance efforts by the Bruins.

Despite a loss to end a season that once paled in comparison to Wright’s 2015 championship-winning campaign, the Bruins walked away together as a team, Griggs said.

“Those guys are like brothers to me,” Griggs said. “Even when I wasn’t playing, they’re all my brothers, my best friends, and they worked their asses off this year to help me. They are everything to me.”

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