UCLA Water Polo Coach Adam Wright at the Navy Invitational

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UCLA's Adam Wright (left) and Jason Falitz. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

One of the biggest draws of early season NCAA men’s water polo matches on the East Coast is a chance to see some of the sports best as they travel to get in some matches against local teams while exposing fans to the nation’s best players.

uclaIn recent years past, Cal, Pacific, Pepperdine, Stanford, UCLA and other top California teams have come to either the Bruno Invitational, the Princeton Invitational and this year to the Navy Invitational. Making waves in the Lejeune Hall pool were #2 UCLA, with newly-minted Olympic qualifier Alex Wolf, and star striker Nicolas Saveljic and #3 Stanford, which features Ben Hallock, the Cardinal’s own Olympian, and a host of other exceptional players, including Tyler Abramson, Bennett Williams and Dylan Woodhead.

[On Deck With Ben Hallock of Stanford and the U.S. Men’s Water Polo Team]

On hand to speak with Swimming World about his team, the prospective season—which for the first time in a quarter century will not include Jovan Vavic—and the continued grow of the sport in America, was Adam Wright, UCLA men’s and women’s coach.

– As you men start their season, the Bruins have some injuries to deal with. As always, it’s a transition to yet another cycle of NCAA competition.

For us, every year obviously it’s a new team. We’re really young right now and we do have some people that are out, but the reality is we have a choice. We either can sit and wait for them to come back or we keep going. And look, we don’t wish anybody to be out and injured. But it happens sometimes in our sport and the reality is, it’s giving other people a big opportunity to step up into roles, maybe they didn’t foresee happening so quickly. So for me, we have our work cut out for sure. And there’s a lot of good teams and good balance across all the conferences this year. So it should be an exciting year.

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Alex Wolf. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

– What differences will the USC coaching transition from Jovan Vavic to Marko Pintaric have on a the defending national champions?

They’re returning pretty much the same team from last year. Marko played there, so he’s been there even longer than 18 years. He’s been Jovan’s really right-hand man for the better part of 18 years on the staff.

[Five Questions for Marko Pintaric, USC Men’s and Women’s Water Polo Coach]

No matter what, there’s going to be some sort of change. Every person’s different, and Marko may bring different things to the table. But the reality is, they’re going to be a well-prepared team, just like they’ve always been.

The other reality is, they were the best team in the country last year and that experience gives them a lot for this season. And we expect that it’s going to be the same USC that everybody’s used to. They’re a really good program and Marko’s a good coach, and they got a good team.

So, it’ll always be a challenge.

– On your team you’ve got Alex Wolf—who gets to look forward to a trip to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games. What bearing does his success have on your season?

We have to be mindful of Alex’s health, and some things you can’t avoid. But the reality is he’s got more experience than anybody on our team. Not only at the collegiate level but at the international level.

[Long-Time Dreams Collide At 2019 Pan American Men’s Water Polo Final]

We’ll give him the opportunity to even get better in short amount of time in the three months that we have here. We know that his is the one position  we can really trust as of right now. And we know just where we are with our team right now. We’re going to have our work cut out with matching up in certain situations.

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What everyone’s playing for. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

There’s going to be moments where we’re really going to lean on Wolf. He’s ready for that, and that’s going to put him in a position to get better. To be in the situations where you’re forced to rise to the occasion. And our goal is to make sure he is getting better because if he is getting better than it puts him in a better position to be the starting goalie for 2020.

He’s going to see a lot of shots this year. We’re young, we’re going to make mistakes and we believe he’s the guy that really can help us. He can cover up those mistakes. Last year a big progression [for Wolf] as far being a leader in our program, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he’s going to progress with this year’s team.

– You’ve now have established a pattern where UCLA comes East to get their season started. That’s got many implications both in terms of training and cost. What is the value add for your program, for your parents, to come to a Navy, to a Princeton, to a Brown and play against some of the best in the East?

For us, it gives us an opportunity for the group to be on the road together, get to know each other. This is the first real trip that we’ve done as a UCLA team together.

Second, we get four, sometimes five games when we come here. It gives us an opportunity to see where we need to get better in a hurry.

Look, this season moves so quickly, and to have the opportunity to come out here and play the top teams from the East, and see our new team and our new guys in certain situations, that’s really valuable for us. And—I say it all the time—it’s a big cost for us to come  here, but we need the East more than people really realize.

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Brandon Shields protecting the Navy cage. Photo Courtesy: Phil Hoffmann

Without the East, we don’t have a sport. And there’s a nice progression going on here. You’re starting to see Navy—watch where they’re going to go in a couple of years here. But Dusty [Litvak, Princeton coach] is already starting to do a lot at Princeton, and there’s a lot of good players coming from the West to  play out here, which is important for water polo.

Without these teams, we don’t have a sport. And I think this year back East, it’s going to be super competitive. You got Princeton, Harvard. There’s a lot of good teams.

We love it. It’s a unique opportunity for us. We look forward to the opportunity. And this year at Navy, it’s really special. I haven’t been here in a long time and this is a really, really nice place. And the hospitality they provide is always first class.