By Elliot Olshansky
CSTV.comThe last time Adam Krikorian took a UCLA team into competition, the Bruins won a national championship.
Now, as he gets ready for another season in Westwood, he hopes to preside over a dramatic comeback, and see his team return to form.
No, you didn't read that wrong. Krikorian, the head coach of both the men's and women's water polo teams at his alma mater, guided the women to a second straight NCAA title this past spring. The Bruin men, however, were not quite so impressive in their last effort, finishing fifth in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings and missing the NCAA Tournament after defeating Stanford to win the title in 2004.
According to Krikorian, though, changing gears doesn't take much of an effort.
"It's not too hard," the eighth-year head coach said. "Maybe the first week, but we practice a little in the spring, and then we practice a lot in the summertime, so we're kind of over that. Anytime you feel like you come up a little bit short, and maybe can do a little bit better, it's actually more exciting to come back. In essence, it's a clean slate."
Besides, while it certainly wasn't what Krikorian or any of his players had in mind for the Bruins last September, UCLA's 21-8 record in 2005 wasn't exactly disastrous.
"I would even be careful to call it disappointing for us," Krikorian said. "It was disappointing at times, but there were also positive developments and good things that happened."
One of those positive developments was learning how to deal with adversity. In addition to having graduated a large senior class, Krikorian was deprived of the services of two top defenders: Mike March and Brad Grenier, both of whom will play their senior seasons this fall, along with a well-seasoned group of true seniors.
"A lot of the guys who were here last year, who are now our seniors, they feel completely different," Krikorian said. "They feel like they're a lot more experienced. Last year, they were forced into [being] the leaders of our team, and making up the bulk of our team as juniors, and that was a tough year. I think the experience that they gained last year is going to add to our confidence this year, which is ultimately going to help our team be successful."
Among the Bruins who gained valuable experience as "go-to guys" for UCLA in 2005 is senior Logan Powell, who scored 34 goals on 79 attempts last season, and is the leading returning scorer for UCLA in 2006.
"He does a great job on that right side of the pool," Krikorian said of his left-handed attacker. "He and Mike March really work well together. He's a great communicator. He does a great job communicating, particularly when we're on defense, which is very important, and he's a very intelligent player. He understands the game as well as anyone on our team, and in a lot of ways, he and maybe one or two others are my outlets, so I can say something to them, and they can relay it on to the rest of the team. As a coach, it's nice to have someone like that whom you can feel comfortable with and confident in that they can lead our team."
Of course, Powell is hardly the only Bruin glad to see the return of March, who contributed 26 goals from his defender's position in 2004. It doesn't take a championship coach like Krikorian (or any of UCLA's legends) to know what March brings to the table.
"Mike is one of the best defenders in the country," Krikorian said. "If we had a weakness last year, it was at the defending spot, and Mike is very physical and strong. He has some of the strongest legs I've ever seen. He's left-handed, so he plays the right side of the pool. He's an excellent passer, and also a great threat offensively."
Also rejoining the team will be Greiner, who had a very successful 2005 campaign, just not in the pool. Under the name Bradley Thomas, Greiner spent the fall of 2005 working as a model, and was featured prominently in an Abercrombie and Fitch ad campaign.
Of course, when it comes to Greiner, there's no need for the phrase, "If looks could kill," because the senior can kill a team's offensive hopes with a lot more than a look.
"He is more than just a pretty face," Krikorian said. "He's a tough defender, and he's long. Having him and March back, that's two of our best defenders, and Brad is different than Mike. Brad is a little bit longer. He's very tall, with long arms, and he's also very quick and mobile. He can do a great job defending, and at the same time, when the ball turns over, he becomes one of the leaders of our fast break."
Suffice it to say that scoring on the Bruins will be much harder in 2006 than it was a year ago.
"We get those two back," Krikorian said, "and it'll kind of clear up some of our weakness defensively [from] last year."
Of course, while adding March and Greiner back into the mix will certainly make UCLA a much tougher team defensively than it was a year ago, Krikorian knows full well after all this time that nothing is guaranteed in the ultra-tough MPSF. Ranked No. 3 to start the season, the Bruins are surrounded by league rivals atop the preseason polls, with Cal and defending NCAA champ USC in the top two spots, and Stanford right behind Krikorian's team at No. 4.
Still, Krikorian said, just to mention the programs atop the national rankings doesn't do justice to the strength the MPSF exudes from top to bottom. According to Krikorian, there's no one game the Bruins can win to send a message and show that they're back.
"The reason why you can't pinpoint any one game or two is that they only take two [MPSF] teams to the NCAAs," Krikorian said. "You have one slip-up in a game that you're supposed to win, it can cost you a chance to compete for the national championship. Every single game that we play is difficult, and that's going to be our approach."
Krikorian and the Bruins had a chance to test out their approach for the season over the weekend in a scrimmage tournament, and so far, Krikorian likes what he sees.
"I like the way they play the things that we've been working on in practice," Krikorian said. "We've spent a lot of time working on our half-court defense as well as our counterattack. We really haven't spent much time offensively, and I thought we were pretty solid offensively.
"I don't think we're going to have a hard time scoring goals, necessarily, but we have to put a lot of emphasis on the way we play defense."
With the return of defensive standouts March and Greiner, and with Powell helping to direct traffic once again, that shouldn't be a problem. At least, not for the Bruins.