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UCLA men’s water polo pushes through pandemic for NCAA title

Members of the UCLA men's water polo team celebrate after winning the NCAA championship.
Members of the UCLA men’s water polo team celebrate after winning the NCAA championship with a 7-6 victory over USC on March 21.
(Catharyn Hayne)

There were few people Nicolas Saveljic saw more often in the last six months than Bernardo Maurizi. So as UCLA coaches and players jumped into the pool at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center after the Bruins won the men’s water polo national championship on Sunday, there was no one better for UCLA’s star senior to share the moment with than his roommate.

Players screamed and coaches swam while dressed in full sweat suits and shoes, but Saveljic, still clutching the game ball he corralled after USC’s last-chance shot ricocheted off the goalpost, wrapped his arm around Maurizi’s shoulders and pulled the goalie close for an embrace. Joy and relief washed over as smiles split their faces.

“It’s like the sacred feeling you can’t explain,” Saveljic said.

After months of covering their faces behind masks, the Bruins let their smiles shine bright after winning their first national championship since 2017 and the school’s 119th NCAA title overall. The fact that the 7-6 victory came in their rival’s home pool added another sweet topping to a championship run that was perhaps the most difficult of the program’s 12 national titles.

Daily coronavirus testing, round-robin tournaments against only the best Mountain Pacific Sports Federation teams and a roster in constant flux were only some of the things that challenged the Bruins (9-7), but they were also the things that made the effort more worth it than ever.

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“To be able to see the kids with smiles on their faces out in the water, that’s the real championship,” coach Adam Wright said. “Nobody envisioned what’s transpired … and for us to have the ability to have an NCAA championship was really, truly special.”

When the Bruins gathered for workouts in the fall, all they had was trust and hope. Competitions weren’t guaranteed. Players committed to getting tested every morning before practice and not socializing outside of practice or games.

“That’s why this year was so special because it brought us very close to embrace the UCLA culture that we believe in,” said Saveljic, who led the Bruins with 37 goals this year.

The program’s culture was showing cracks since its last national triumph. The Bruins lost in the semifinals in 2018 and failed to make the NCAA tournament in 2019. Wright noticed how the group’s self-confidence wavered in the biggest moments.

Perhaps no player typified the team’s growth more than Saveljic. The 6-foot-6 attacker has stood on the edge of stardom since he led the 2017 title team in scoring. He had a magnetic personality and immense talent, but “absolutely no confidence in himself” in crucial moments, Wright said. During pressure-packed matches, Saveljic seemed to play as a shell of himself.

This year, he was chosen the NCAA tournament’s most valuable player, scoring six goals with six steals in three games. He scored twice in the semifinals against top-seeded Stanford, delivered another goal in the final and had a crucial field block with 1:12 remaining against USC to preserve UCLA’s one-goal lead.

UCLA senior Nicolas Saveljic lines up a shot during the NCAA men's water polo championships against USC.
UCLA senior Nicolas Saveljic lines up a shot during the NCAA men’s water polo championship against USC.
(Minette Rubin)

“It’s really about life after UCLA and giving these guys confidence in themselves and that was really the last piece for Nicolas,” Wright said. “He made the most change and not only it helped him, but it helped us.”

Saveljic, who will return next fall with additional eligibility granted during the pandemic, set an example for a large group of promising freshmen. Mo Kenney was selected the MPSF newcomer of the year after scoring 20 goals. Hayden Nightingale, a 6-1 attacker, switched to a defensive role three-quarters of the way through the year, but scored a goal in the semifinal against Stanford. Guillermo Ocascio was a super sub in the NCAA tournament, where he made his collegiate debut in the first round and scored two goals against California Baptist.

The freshmen rose to the occasion against what may be the hardest schedule they’ll face in college despite the shortened season. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams focused almost exclusively on conference matchups. That meant UCLA, USC, California and Stanford — the only schools that have won NCAA titles since 1998 — played round-robin tournaments every other weekend. No one emerged as a clear frontrunner.

When the teams met again at the NCAA tournament, it became a “game of chess,” Wright said.

UCLA didn’t advance as far as it wanted to in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, but the players and coaches knew this season would be unique.

“It was up to the smartest team,” Maurizi said, “and the ones who were willing to perform the small details.”

Maurizi was a first-year starter, unsure if he would win the top spot after All-American Alex Wolf graduated. With 143 saves in 16 games, Maurizi grew into “the backbone of the team,” Saveljic said.

The sophomore from Italy saved his best for the final, where he had nine saves. He had a clutch block with 2:19 remaining in the fourth quarter against USC’s top scorer Jacob Mercep to maintain UCLA’s 7-6 lead. His most spectacular effort came in the second quarter when he shut down a six-on-four USC advantage by stuffing a point-blank shot from Max Miller. It was one of the best blocks Wright has ever seen.

Two days before, the sophomore was hampered in practice by a lingering shoulder injury he suffered a month ago. He looked hesitant in the pool, Wright said. After the second-quarter power-play stop, Maurizi flexed his left arm that was taped at the shoulder toward the bench.

“That was truly special to see him play with that passion and fire,” Wright said.

In a tight championship match, Maurizi tried to keep his emotions in check. When the final horn sounded, he released the built-up tension with a scream while ripping the cap off his head.

The adrenaline that powered him through his injury subsided gradually as the celebration wore on. UCLA did an “eight-clap” in USC’s pool, an extra twist of the rivalry knife. Maurizi recounted the sacrifices of the past six months and the efforts of everyone who was floating in the water around him.

Another smile stretched across his face.

Nicolas Saveljic and Bernardo Maurizi celebrate after winning the national championship.
UCLA’s Nicolas Saveljic (back) and Bernardo Maurizi celebrate after the Bruins defeated USC in the NCAA men’s water polo championship on March 21.
(Minette Rubin)


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