Freshman Goalie Lauren Steele Has Had Immediate Impact for Top-Ranked UCLA Women’s Water Polo

Lauren Steele-ucla

Freshman Goalie Lauren Steele Has Had Immediate Impact for Top-Ranked UCLA Women’s Water Polo

Reading through the women’s water polo stat sheet from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, few UCLA players’ names appear. Not in the lists for goals or assists or points, stats you might assume tell a story of success. 

The Bruins (20-0; 5-0 MPSF), the nation’s top-ranked team most of this season, are succeeding not because of flashy plays or by compiling impressive statistics, but because they do the little things right. Exactly as Coach Adam Wright teaches.

Sophomore Anna Pearson, tops for UCLA with 34 goals, leads the MPSF with 71 exclusions earned. Freshman Panni Szegedi, the Bruins’ number two scorer, has a middle-of-the-stat-pack 15 sprint wins.

Then there is Lauren Steele, UCLA’s precocious freshman goalie. Hailing from Greenwich, CT, an Eastern locale rising in esteem among West Coast water polo coaches, Steele is second in steals and save percentage while also fourth in saves. And, as was demonstrated in a 7-6 victory over MPSF foe Cal last Saturday in Berkeley, Steele is more than able to hold her own against any opponent. She stopped 20 Golden Bear shots and was particularly sharp in the fourth quarter when the home team furiously buzzed the UCLA net, looking  for an equalizer that never came.

“We had a game plan to force them to shoot more shots,” Steele explained to The Daily Bruin after the match. “…my teammates definitely helped me with their blocks, because doing their blocking responsibilities helps me do my blocking responsibilities.”

In a Wright defensive scheme—which is a UCLA defensive scheme and, ultimately, a John Wooden defensive scheme—it’s field blocks and earned exclusions that trump goals and assists. Oh, and wins; under their exacting coach the Bruins have captured 20 wins against no losses this season, the best measure of success for the UCLA women since Wright took over leadership of their program in 2018.

A UCLA lifer—he won two NCAA titles as a player and has three more as coach of the men’s program—Wright preaches that success starts with defense. And, in facing a Cal team that had only allowed one team, Hawai’i, to tag them with double-digit goals this season, Wright knew that defending their goal was a priority for his team.

Steele suits this priority perfectly.

“There’s no doubt Lauren puts us in a position to be successful. That has a direct correlation to who she is every day,” Wright said in an email this week. “Her focus and attention to details is remarkable and has put her in a position to be successful.”

In describing his freshman goalie’s role on a young Bruin squad—UCLA has twice as many freshman and sophomores as juniors and seniors—Wright explained that “Lauren’s impact on our team does not come as a surprise because of what we see from her on a daily basis her intensity and focus towards training.”

From Greenwich to Los Angeles to Westwood

Starting with club play in Connecticut, Steele pushed to be successful, and might have stayed on the East Coast if Covid 19 hadn’t intervened. A stint at the 6/8 Academy in Los Angeles led her to three memorable seasons playing for Orange Lutheran High School, and now Westwood and UCLA.

Maggie Steffens, captain of the US Women’s National team and a three-time Olympic gold medalist, remembers when a young Steele came to 6/8, the program she runs with five-time Olympian Tony Azevedo.

“She came to 6/8 Academy during Covid,” Steffens said this week in New York City. “We saw the bright talent in her, not just athletically but mentally. She was ready and willing to give it her all—she moved across the country to achieve her dream. 

“I’m so proud of all the hard work she’s done and the woman she’s becoming. I look forward to following her career,” Steffens added.

As their season comes to a climax, what lies ahead for Steele and her teammates—the MPSF Tournament and then NCAAs—will further test their commitment to success. As Wright knows only too well, it’s not how you start but how you finish: last season the UCLA men were undefeated through 24 matches then lost three of their last five, including the national championship match to Cal.

And after that, perhaps recognition of success. In a watch list citing the nation’s top collegiate players, Pearson and Szegedi were listed, but not Steele, an oversight Wright took exception to.

“I didn’t know she’s not… and find that interesting,” said her coach. “There’s no doubt [Lauren] should be a part of the Cutino Award watch list.”

And if her team keeps winning, Steele may capture the award as the top collegiate female in America. Stats be damned.

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