Young Bruin Val Ayala Powering A UCLA Women’s Water Polo Revival

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UCLA's Val Ayala. Photos Courtesy: Minette Rubin

LOS ANGELES, CA. As the proud UCLA women’s water polo program, now under the leadership of head coach Adam Wright, seeks to recover some of its former luster, it will take more than Wright’s successful record on the men’s side to reinvigorate the most successful women’s program in NCAA history.

uclaThe Bruins graduated four red-shirt seniors after the 2017 season, the culmination of a talent pipeline that had advanced them to title matches in 2014, 2015 and 2017. On each occasion UCLA lost to Stanford—and coach Brandon Brooks abruptly resigned that May following the latest NCAA letdown.

[UCLA’s Brooks Steps Down after 8 Seasons; Stanford is Likely Culprit]

Wright, who has led the UCLA men since 2010—including NCAA titles in 2014, 2015 and 2017—stepped into the coaching breach that July and has spent the past season and a half addressing a talent deficit. Midway through his second year as women’s coach, he’s reaping the bounty of early recruiting efforts, including freshman Val Ayala, who in March was named MPSF/KAP7 Newcomer of the Week.

The rapid maturation of freshmen Ayala, Bella Baia and Ava Johnson, who complement an experienced core of players that includes Maddie Musselman, Bronte Halligan, Lizette Rozeboom and others, gives the young Bruins a puncher’s chance to surprise #1 Stanford or #2 USC on their way to the 2019 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Tournament.

UCLA Athletics - 2019 UCLA Women's Water Polo versus the University of Pacific Tigers, Sunset Recreational Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. March 29th, 2019 Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA 190329_WWP_0149.NEF

Adam Wright, UCLA head men’s and women’s coach and his staff. Kodi Hill is on the left. Photo Courtesy: Don Liebig

Wright, who not only won titles as UCLA’s men’s coach but also back-to-back national championships as a Bruins player in 1999 and 2000, knows the expectations in Westwood are high.

“UCLA women’s water polo is the country’s most storied program—and the first,” Wright said from deck of the Spieker Aquatics Center pool after his #3-ranked squad had captured a 10-7 win over #7 Pacific. “You look at this program’s past—it’s incredible what’s happened, and the players that have come out of here.”

When it comes to NCAA championships, UCLA, with 116, ranks second only to the Cardinal of Stanford (119). No collegiate program in America can match the school’s reputation for athletic excellence, starting with a record 10 NCAA men’s basketball titles captured by John Wooden-coached teams from 1964 to 1975.

The Bruin women’s water polo program has contributed 11 trophies, including seven since the sport was recognized by the NCAA in 2001, to that collection of championship hardware.

Ah, but none since 2009.

Given that winning is always the goal in Westwood, Wright knows what he must do—and for that he needs players, including his prized recruiting class.

“We have a great group that was already here, but now adding this freshman class has been big,” he said. “At any given point there will be four freshmen in the water playing for us. We know if we want to have a chance to be successful, these players have to get experience…and one of those is Val.”

A precocious freshman arrives

Entering this high-pressure environment last September was Ayala, one of Wright’s first recruits. Ironically, Ayala was not originally sold on the Bruins—her allegiance lay crosstown with UCLA’s archrival, USC.

“I had no lifeline towards UCLA; my whole family is a huge USC family,” Ayala said after the Pacific match. “A couple of family members had gone to USC, so I was a die-hard Trojan fan.”

But that was before she met with the persuasive Wright, who convinced Ayala that her future lay in Westwood.

For Wright, after a decade immersed in the UCLA men’s program, it took a sprint to get up to speed with the women. Saying that he had to “quickly make some calls” upon assuming the job, one of the first was to Kodi Hill, a red-shirt senior who fortunately stayed around to assist the new coach.

“Val was one of the players Kodi said I absolutely had to see,” Wright said of his now-assistant coach. “I knew from the first moment [I saw her]. With players, I’m looking if they’re a student of the game, are they interacting with their teammates…. She stood out.”

“She plays both sides of the pool,” Wright explains. “She’s a right-hander playing on the right side of the pool where the left-handers play. Part is that, because she plays really good defense, she sees the game. This side of the pool is always watching or playing the ball to the center, to Maddie or the other people who are playing the movement side.”

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Val Ayala. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

Wright, who played Ayala’s same position in the field in his collegiate days, let her know she was a top target and that he felt she was just “scraping the surface” of where she could go.

And so, said Ayala, “[W]hen I came here and spoke to Adam…I fell in love with UCLA and knew I had to come here.”

A match was made, to everyone’s satisfaction—and, given the current turmoil at Southern Cal, the stability at UCLA is a bonus for a freshman seeking to find her way. Certainly, Wright is appreciative of his new freshman class, acknowledging that “It’s a big jump—they’re starting for UCLA and playing massive minutes.”

[After a Quarter Century in Troy, Jovan Vavic Fired as USC Men’s & Women’s Head Water Polo Coach]

And producing: Ayala has 31 goals, good for second on the squad, while Baia has 17 and Johnson 16.

“This group that we brought in, we’re in a different position than we were last year at this point,” Wright said with relish.

Managing expectations

The challenge for any newcomer is to learn her role and then carry it out. In this Ayala is refreshingly honest, given the expectations for UCLA polo. “I came here for a reason and I know what my job is,” she said. “You just step up to the plate and do what you know how to do.”

An important part of her transition to the Bruin way has been working with Musselman, who, in a little more than two seasons in Westwood, has scored 171 goals, good for tenth in the Bruins’ all-time record book. In 2018, Ayala was a precocious high school senior when she was named to the U.S. Senior National team that competed in the FINA International Cup in Auckland, New Zealand. While there, she missed the opportunity to play with an injured Musselman, who has been a stalwart contributor to U.S. Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s roster since a break-out performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“Maddie’s incredible—she’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Ayala said. “You always [think]: I want to be like Maddie—I want to do what she’s doing. Her work ethic and attitude are contagious.”

UCLA Athletics - 2019 UCLA Women's Water Polo versus the University of Pacific Tigers, Sunset Recreational Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. March 29th, 2019 Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA 190329_WWP_0391.NEF

Bruin pride is all about the team. Photo Courtesy: Don Liebig

In a season where Southern Cal, the reigning national champions, have been rocked by scandal, perhaps Wright’s young squad can surprise the polo world and produce an NCAA title for UCLA. But the Bruin coach is savvy enough to stay focused on the next match, which is Saturday at #1 Stanford—and he acknowledges the program’s ultimate goal, while articulating the underpinning technique.

“What we’re trying to create here are students of the game,” Wright said. “Somebody makes a move in chess and you have to counter. I want to give that to all these players.”