UCLA women’s water polo brings perfect record to NCAA championships – Orange County Register

UCLA women’s water polo has balance this season not just in its attack, but also in its mix of youth and veteran players.

There are 11 freshmen on the Bruins’ roster this season and eight have received playing time. Their talent, combined with the leadership of seniors and graduate students who have returned using their COVID year, has earned UCLA the No. 1 seed heading into the NCAA championships this weekend at Berkeley.

“For me,” Bruins coach Adam Wright said, “it’s about how the group organically grows and learns to trust each other and believe in each other and have confidence in themselves and each other.”

The undefeated Bruins will open tournament play Friday against the winner of the Wagner-Biola game. Other teams in the tournament bracket include No. 2 seed Hawai’i, No. 3 seed California, No. 4 seed Stanford, USC, Princeton and Fresno State.

The Bruins (23-0) have beaten every team in the NCAA championship bracket this season except for Wagner, which they did not face, and are seeking their first NCAA title since 2009.

“We’re holding nothing back. We’re going for it,” freshman goalkeeper Lauren Steele said. “Our goal is to walk away this weekend with an NCAA championship and it’s pretty exciting. We’re going to put it all out there and hope to come out with the win.”

Steele has had a decorated initial season at UCLA after deciding to graduate from Orange Lutheran High early and arrive on campus Dec. 28. She was named the 2024 MPSF Tournament MVP after making 14 saves and recording one steal in a 13-10 win over Cal in the championship game April 28.

Steele owns a .660 save percentage across 19 games in addition to a 6.35 goals against average and 20 total steals.

“I knew the impact that she could have on a program like UCLA,” Wright said. “Did I think it would happen as fast as it has? There was a thought, but not to where it is. She’s a special person in and outside the pool. Her work ethic is incredible.”

The freshman’s steady presence in the cage has allowed UCLA to lock down on defense and let its balanced attack to move forward. Freshman Panni Szegedi, who moved from Budapest, Hungary, to join the team early, has been a big part of that attack.

UCLA women's water polo utility player Panni Szegedi. (Courtesy UCLA Athletics)
UCLA women’s water polo utility player Panni Szegedi. (Courtesy UCLA Athletics)

She had a hat trick against USC to help close out the Bruins’ first undefeated regular season since 2008. Her scoring total stands at 33 goals this season and she’s taken 66 shots, despite having to transition from her familiar European style of water polo.

“This is a completely different style than what I was used to,” Szegedi said. “And now I can play in another system and I love it. The atmosphere here, it’s really good. It’s like a big family.”

Steele and Szegedi, who are also roommates, and the other freshmen have had guidance from upperclassmen like Hannah Palmer, another Orange Lutheran product who was named to the MPSF All-Tournament team.

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