Coach Adam Wright Weighs in on Guiding UCLA’s Powerful Water Polo Programs

Adam Wright

Coach Adam Wright Guiding Weighs in on Guiding UCLA’s Powerful Water Polo Programs

HUNTINGTON BEACH, CA. Spending time with Adam Wright, UCLA men’s and women’s water polo head coach, is like being in the company of a powerful politician. Wright is surrounded by success; there’s Chase and Ryder Dodd, once and future Bruins, who hope to represent the U.S. in the Paris Olympics. Or, Maddie Musselman, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, who watched her former college side power its way to the 2024 Barbara Kalbus Invitational title at Corona del Mar High School.

Also on hand: Brandon Brooks, Wright’s teammate on UCLA’s 1999 and 2000 NCAA champions and on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic squads. Brooks was the coach for Bruin women’s polo until 2018 when Wright added that program to his leadership of UCLA’s men.

Then there’s the parents whose daughters play for the charismatic UCLA coach. They want to shake Wright’s hand and check in on their kid’s progress. Turns out, the top-ranked Bruins (15-0) are doing great; it’s why Wright is as popular here in the heart of Orange County’s rabid polo culture as he is in Westwood, the cradle of championships defined by the late, great John Wooden. The Wizard of Westwood won a record ten NCAA men’s basketball titles; Wright’s been part of seven national championships—four as a coach, two as a player and one as an assistant—and you gotta believe that there are more in store for the 46-year-old, who continues to succeed no matter what happens in the pool or in life.

Following is an interview w/Adam Wright conducted in February at Corona del Mar High School.


[Wright spoke after his team won a 15-9 match against #2 Hawai’i, a contest in which the Rainbow Wahine dominated the first 12 minutes, racing out to an 8-3 lead before the Bruins came roaring back]

SW: A tough start for the Bruins is balanced by an impressive—and decisive—finish.

Adam Wright: The disappointing part is [in] the first half we didn’t take care of the ball. The first quarter [we had] seven turnovers. That’s almost every possession. And you’ve got to credit Hawai’i, they’ve been playing really well this year. But like I said to our team, why do we train the way we train if we’re going to go out there and throw the ball around?

Lauren Steele

Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

Lauren [Steele] in goal is really big for us. She keeps us in the game. We showed who we are in the second half, the way we’re supposed to play defense, the way we’re supposed to counter, the way teams are supposed to chase us. If we do that from the beginning it pays dividends. We had to have some of our girls play the whole game; if we did it the right way from the beginning now you’re getting everybody out there in the water. 

For sure it’s a tale of two halves. What I like from that game is there’s so much to learn. Everybody’s going to bring their best game and if you’re not ready from the get-go you’ll find yourself in a tough spot really quick.

[As Wright knows, the only non-MPSF team to qualify for an NCAA final is Loyola Marymount in 2004. And the only Pac-12 team besides Stanford, UCLA and USC to play for a national title was Cal in 2010.]  

SW: If Hawai’i had found a way to beat you they’d be #1, which would be the first time ever for them. This is an Olympic year, which scrambles everything for the top teams. Will you see Hawai’i again in an NCAA final?

Wright: They’ve already positioned themselves in a really good spot. They’re really good! They’ve got two incredible centers [Raha Peiravani and Bia Mantellato Dias]. They’ve got great shooters, they’ve got good goalie play, they’ve got the left-hander back from Doha [Bernadette Doyle]. I see them at the last tournament of the year at Cal. 

The biggest thing Hawai’i has is they’re really dynamic. And they have shooters. You see the way they pass the ball in the 6-on-5. It’s very crisp… actually, it’s awesome. Coach Mo (Maureen Cole) and James Robinson, who was with me as a player at UCLA and on our staff, they’re doing an incredible job. I have no doubt they’ll be one of the teams there at the end; they’re the real deal, for sure.

[Last fall, the UCLA men raced through the regular season undefeated, only to fall twice in the MPSF tournament. They earned the top seed in the NCAA tournament but fell 11-9 to Cal, the team’s third loss in five games to end the season. During the season, Wright dealt with his father’s illness.]

After getting through the regular men’s season in 2023 unbeaten, everything crashed down in the MPSF tournament and ended with a loss to Cal in the NCAA final.

A lot of people don’t understand the adversity our men’s team truly had. I wanted Chase Dodd to pursue his goal of making the Olympic team, so I said to him: you’re going to redshirt and keep your focus there. He could have played.

We lost Tommy Gruwell 12 days before camp. He made the decision to pursue the national team. That’s a big hit for us. Gianpiero Di Martire—who had hand surgery two years ago and had been great—all the sudden he has issues. So we lost him for the year.

Bernardo Maurizi, our goalie who was an NCAA player of the tournament [in 2022] gets hit in the head on the second day of preseason and he’s out for six weeks.

When there’s adversity you find out who you are. For my personal life, [given] how much stuff went on with my dad, it was one of the most enjoyable seasons ever. So many young players doing so many great things, it’s gonna serve us well for the future. 

For us it’s never about a record, it’s about the process. If you had asked me before the season: Do you think we’re going to go undefeated? I would have laughed. 

The guys, they did the process the right way and it put us in a position to have a really great year. The hard part you know is the end. But Cal, the guy in the middle, [Nik} Papanikolaou, is beyond a special player. What Kirk [Everist, Cal coach] did with the group he assembled is truly amazing. 

To go out on the year 3-1 against Cal—all the stuff we went through, if you were to ask me I’d say that’s a tough feat. Based on where we were over the last eight games with them the last two and a half years, they kind of had our number. Seven of the eight are overtime but they’re always winning. 

When you get to that point you want it so bad for the guys… they left everything out there. What you get in return for the program in the future is just massive. The group, when they believe in and trust each other, that carries forward. 

We’re going to have a special group; that doesn’t guarantee anything, but it organically builds something special amongst the guys. You just want to move that forward.

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