Scoring the game-winning goal with less than a minute on the clock, UCI men’s water polo upended UCLA 9-8 on Saturday, breaking the ‘Eaters’ 10-year losing streak against the No. 1-ranked Bruins.
The victory is UCI’s first since 2007 against UCLA men’s water polo; the upset broke UCLA’s 12-0 win streak this season and marks the first UCI win out of the past 18 match-ups between the ‘Eaters and the Bruins.
The ‘Eater victory follows another close win against Pepperdine last week, bringing UCI’s overall record to 9-4 this season heading into the Golden Coast Conference next week.
Against the Bruins, UCI senior Antoine Lena fired the upset goal in the final minute of the game, a close shot into the cage sailing past UCLA’s defense, breaking an 8-8 tie and leading the ‘Eaters to victory.
The ‘Eaters maintained a strong defense against the Bruins throughout the game, with senior goalkeeper Matej Matijevic making 13 saves. UCLA’s sophomore goalkeeper Alex Wolf countered with an impressive series of saves, and the game remained tight through the end.
UCI freshman Fynn Schuetze scored the ‘Eaters’ first three points of the game, keeping them tied 3-3 with the Bruins by the mid-second quarter. After halftime, two goals by UCI seniors Lovre Milos and Robby Stiefel countered a pair of scores by UCLA, maintaining a tie of 5-5.
Riding the ‘Eaters early momentum, with just over three minutes left in the third quarter, Lena cut through UCLA’s tight defense to score a point for the ‘Eaters, breaking the tie and bringing UCI up 6-5. UCI rode out the third quarter with several blocks by Matijevic, an offensive foul committed by UCLA, and heavy defensive work by brothers Jack and Kyle Trush. The ‘Eaters maintained their one-point lead going into the final quarter.
UCLA’s Matt Farmer opened the fourth quarter with a goal, tying the field again at 6-6, but Schuetze immediately countered with another goal — his fourth of the game — bringing back UCI’s one-point advantage. UCI scored again after an offensive foul from UCLA, but UCLA tied it back up halfway through the final quarter. After a timeout, with under four minutes on the clock, Lena scored again for UCI, but UCLA senior Aleksander Ruzic tied it at 8-8 with just over two minutes left in the game. After a series of close saves by Matej, UCI controlled the ball and Lena made the final goal with just 39 seconds on the clock, winning the game for the ‘Eaters.
For UCI’s unprecedented victory, Head Coach Marc Hunt credited Mateijevic’s invincible goalkeeping as well as the Trush brothers on defense.
“The goalie came up huge; Matej’s a super athlete, and his ability to jump all over the cage was a huge momentum-getter,” Hunt said. “And the Trush brothers are the soul of the team, doing the blue-collar work in the pool and exhibiting the kind of leadership that drives the other players.”
Hunt also acknowledged the morale-boosting payoff of Schuetze’s game-opening goals and Lena’s rally in the fourth quarter.
“For Fynn to hit early was fortunate,” said Hunt. “It really opened up the pool for Antoine to make a couple of great goals in the last quarter and bring it home.”
Despite the intimidating odds going in, Lena wasn’t surprised by the outcome.
“The whole team played consistently well, and it showed how hard we’ve been working this season and preseason. It’s always great to win games like this,” Lena said. “I’m looking forward to the rest of the season, and hopefully we’ll get outcomes like this every week.”
The Anteater Aquatics Complex boasted a capacity crowd with over 630 fans in attendance. Coach Hunt expects similar overflow attendance throughout the season, thanks in part to promotional giveaways of UCI Water Polo apparel and free food.
“We’re fortunate to have a donor this season helping out with the fan experience,” Hunt said. “The packed house was really energizing today.”
UCI will face San Jose State at 7 p.m. on Friday, marking the team’s first Golden State Conference match — a game for which Coach Hunt is optimistic.
“Any time you’re playing a highly competitive opponent like UCLA, you’ve got to be pleased when you get a win past,” said Hunt. “San Jose State is formidable as well, they’ve got some excellent new players this year, but we’re confident after this win. Last year was tougher for us, but hopefully this win proves that this year, we’re really here to compete.”