UCLA water polo Coach Adam Wright conducts a film session with his team at a 2011 practice. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Roelse and his UCLA teammates gathered poolside Sunday afternoon for a quick celebratory photo before hopping back into the water to commence their warm-down.
The sequence had a rote feel to it, as if it was just another victory. That’s exactly what it was.
The Bruins men’s water polo team has made winning as routine as breathing over the last 689 days. UCLA eclipsed the NCAA record in the sport Sunday when it defeated UC Davis, 15-8, tallying its 52nd consecutive victory.
The winning streak ranks second among all sports in UCLA’s storied history, trailing only the men’s basketball team’s 88-game romp in the early 1970s. Players were surprised to be asked to pose for a photo after setting the record because they normally do so only after winning championships.
“I saw the picture,” said Roelse, a junior utility player, “and I think maybe about four guys were smiling.”
The only game top-ranked UCLA (19-0) really cares about winning is its last, which presumably will come in the NCAA tournament in December. The Bruins have won the last two national titles and every game they’ve played since beating USC on Nov. 23, 2014, including a perfect 30-0 season in 2015.
UCLA senior attacker Ryder Roberts said he became aware of the chance to make history only after a former Bruin mentioned it over the summer.
“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ and that was that,” Roberts said. “It wasn’t like a big discussion.”
UCLA’s dominance during a winning streak that includes 29 victories over top-10 teams has been stunning. The Bruins have outscored opponents by a 700-278 margin and notched only five one-goal victories.
The irony of the Bruins’ success is that they have forged a system-oriented approach that focuses on sweating every detail besides the outcome. Coach Adam Wright demands that players treat every game situation as if the score is tied when they are often leading by more than 10 goals.
“Our goal really is to put the pressure on ourselves to be our best no matter how much time is elapsed and what the score is,” Wright said. “If you’re winning big, you still have an opportunity to get better, you have an opportunity to grow your depth.”
Wright staggers his lineups so that a few of his best players are in the game at all times, an approach that typically wears down other teams as the game progresses. UCLA has outscored its opponents 76-20 in the third quarter this season.
No one seems to care that senior Patrick Fellner, who averages 1.8 goals per game, is the only Bruin to rank among the top nine in scoring in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
“We want to play a balanced team game,” Wright said, “something that really demonstrates that everybody counts without scoring.”
Now that the Bruins have set the record, they find themselves besieged by questions about how far they can take it. They are entering the toughest part of their schedule, with games against second-ranked California and third-ranked USC ahead before the Mountain Pacific and NCAA championships.
Perhaps it’s telling that a team defined by winning still draws motivation from its defeats.
“I mean, I’ve only lost three games at this school,” Roelse said, “so I’m not trying to lose anymore.”