UCLA completes perfect season with women's water polo championship

Adam Wright knows the drill.

At the final horn of UCLA’s 7-4 NCAA championship win over California on Sunday, the UCLA head coach carefully took off his sneakers and placed them on the bench. He gathered several players and assistant coaches in a group hug on the pool deck before sharing a consoling hug with Cal head coach Coralie Simmons.

Then he dove into the pool head first.

After coaching the UCLA men’s team to four NCAA championships, Wright led the women to their first national crown since 2009 and completed the program’s first undefeated season since 2008. The Bruins (26-0) are the first team since USC in 2016 to complete a perfect season and only the fifth team in NCAA women’s water polo history.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Wright told reporters at Cal’s Spieker Aquatics Complex. “It feels so good to see UCLA back on top because that’s what I was used to when I was at school at UCLA, and I’m just lucky to be a part of it.”

Wright, who also won NCAA titles as a player in 1999 and 2000, took over the women’s program in 2017. The Bruins were coming off a streak of close calls, advancing to the NCAA title game three times in four seasons only to come up short each time. After UCLA won seven of the first nine NCAA women’s water polo championships, including five consecutive titles from 2005 to 2009, Stanford and USC competed for the next 13 with the Cardinal winning eight.

But with a talented young roster, the Bruins could be starting a new dynasty.

Freshman Panni Szegedi led UCLA with three goals in the championship game, moving her into a tie for the team lead with 39 goals this season. Underclassmen scored six of UCLA’s seven goals, and freshman Lauren Steele starred in the cage with 17 saves.

The relationship between the young players and veterans, including graduate students Brooke Doten and Hannah Palmer, exemplified the culture that powered the Bruins to their eighth NCAA championship and 12th national title overall.

“Our connections outside the water go so far in the water,” Steele told reporters.

The former Orange Lutheran star figures to be a mainstay of UCLA’s future success. She graduated from high school early to join the Bruins in December, then started all 26 games, earned Mountain Pacific Sports Federation newcomer of the year honors and was named MPSF tournament MVP as UCLA won its first conference championship since 2017. She is still slated to attend her high school graduation ceremony next month.

“Just an absolute stud,” Wright said on the ESPNU broadcast while his hair was still soaked from celebrating in the pool. “Changed the complexion of UCLA women’s water polo.”

Szegedi scored all three of her goals in the second half after the teams were tied 2-2 at halftime. The freshman from Hungary broke the tight game open by giving the Bruins a two-goal lead with 5:07 left in the fourth quarter. It was the first time either team led by multiple goals in a defensive battle.

Seeing Steele’s eyes from the pool deck, Wright said he knew the freshman would finish the job.

Steele put the exclamation point on UCLA’s championship celebration after players and coaches climbed out of the pool. Standing in front of an oversized poster of the bracket, teammates waited for Steele to finish her on-camera interview before handing her a blue sticker with UCLA printed on it. She stuck the badge on the national championship line.

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