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UCLA women’s water polo wonders how season might have played out

UCLA water polo coach Adam Wright speaks to the team.
The UCLA women’s water polo team was No. 2 in the nation and chasing its first NCAA title since 2009 when the coronavirus outbreak ended the season.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Adam Wright could barely bring himself to look his team in the eye. The UCLA women’s water polo coach is no stranger to difficult team speeches, but this one was something he never thought he would have to prepare for.

No coach is ready to address the effects of a global pandemic.

“It’s an unprecedented thing,” Wright said one day after the NCAA canceled winter and spring championships amid the coronavirus outbreak. “No closure.”

After reaching their highest ranking under Wright since the 2018 preseason poll, the No. 2 Bruins were stopped short of their goal of challenging for the national title. This year, the coach said he had started to see significant growth in the program.

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To see it halted so suddenly was “heartbreaking,” Wright said.

“There are a million what-ifs, but what I do know is we can all look in the mirror and know we absolutely did everything we could to grow as a group, to organically grow together, to prepare the right way, to train the right way no matter what your role was,” he said. “So that, we don’t have regrets about.”

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UCLA (19-2) maintained the growth of the program even without top attackers Maddie Musselman and Bronte Halligan, who were redshirting for the Olympics.

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Freshman Abbi Hill, who represented Team USA at the 2019 FINA Women’s Junior World Championship, led the Bruins with 41 goals. The 6-foot utility player was an immediate replacement for Musselman, last year’s leading scorer, who was vying for a spot on the U.S. national team. Halligan, whose 34 goals last season ranked third on the team, was training for the Australian national team.

Knowing the team would be without its stars, Wright was looking forward to this season. He wanted to see the team culture tested. He wondered who would step up and lead through the tight situations that All-Americans Musselman and Halligan used to dominate.

He found his answer in familiar faces: seniors Brooke Maxson and Emily Skelly.

Maxson, a defender, was an unheralded star, Wright said, whose little actions made the team operate. Skelly’s 25 goals, which ranked third on the team, surpassed her total of 24 during the first three years of her career.

“Some of these players that haven’t, per se, been relied upon in the last moments of a game were stepping up and doing the things necessary for us to be successful,” Wright said. “That’s what makes it really tough because when you start having things like that happen, that’s when you know something is really special in the making.”

Wright, who has won three NCAA titles in his 11 seasons as coach of the Bruins’ men’s team, took on the women’s team three years ago. The women haven’t won an NCAA title since 2009.

During Wright’s first two seasons, UCLA lost five Mountain Pacific Sports Federation games, more conference losses than it had in the previous four seasons combined. The coach was asking his team to change, he said.

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The changes started to pay off this year. The Bruins beat No. 1 USC for the first time during Wright’s tenure. The 7-5 victory in the Triton Invitational final on Feb. 9 ended a seven-game losing streak to the Trojans. The last time UCLA held USC to five goals was in 2015.

Two weeks later, the Trojans beat the Bruins 9-7.

Handing the top-ranked team in the nation its only loss on the season then not getting to settle the series in the postseason is one of the more disappointing aspects of the season’s cancellation for UCLA.

“When you’re building a program, it does take time, but I can tell you the acceleration was going much faster than I initially thought when I took over the program,” Wright said. “I’ve had the fortune to be around and play on many good teams and teams that have been successful, and this team had all those makings. We made some big steps as a program this year.”


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