Nov. 13, 2006
By Josh Herwitt
Josh is CSTV.com's men's basketball editor and writes a weekly national column.
In any sport, injuries are almost inevitable.
Far too often, an athlete's season quickly comes to an end without his or her knowing if a comeback is ever in store.
What separates the best athletes from the rest of the competition is the way they respond to their physical hardships.
But even following months of rehabilitation and healing, players often struggle with pain that lingers from a long-term injury.
For Mike March, the pain that continues to spread across his lower back has only pushed him to become one of the best defenders in the country while at UCLA.
"I almost play better when something's hurting," he said. "I think it helps me get into the zone. You have to compensate for it, so you work a little harder than you normally would."
Call it superstition if you like, but March has the third-ranked Bruins in the hunt for a ninth national title as the NCAA championships come to
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the senior defender possesses the size and muscle to bang with the best offensive threats in the country as UCLA's top defensive stopper.
UCLA coach Adam Krikorian has known for a long time that he has something special in March.
In his 15 years with the program, Krikorian hasn't seen in too many other players like March.
"He's one of the most determined young athletes that I have the opportunity to coach," the eighth-year coach admitted. "He's given every inch of passion to the game."
Krikorian could see that fire in March since the day he joined the team back in 2002.
As only a true freshman, the
He followed up a good season with an even better one in 2003, finishing first on the team in assists and third in steals while receiving All-America honorable mention accolades.
And as a junior, March started all 28 matches, tallying 26 goals on 55 attempts, 25 steals and 16 assists as the Bruins captured a national championship for the first time since 2000.
But the high that March was riding following the 2004 season only lasted a few months before his water polo career was put on hold.
While traveling with the
Not only did March miss out on an opportunity to play against the best in the world, but there were also no signs of a quick recovery.
"I was definitely disappointed," he said. "At first I couldn't believe it even happened. I didn't realize how long of a journey it was going to be."
March spent the next several months in a wheelchair, losing all strength in his legs as the Bruins couldn't defend their national championship from the year before, finishing fifth in the MPSF Tournament and the national rankings with a 21-8 overall record.
"It was a huge blow for our team," said senior attacker Logan Powell, a team captain this season and also one of March's roommates. "I really believe if he was there he would have been a huge asset to us."
But March looked at his situation with optimism. According to the redshirt senior, sitting out the entire 2005 season put things back into perspective and left him with a new appreciation for the sport.
"It takes a lot to put me down, but it took me down," March said of his injury. "I was on top of my game. It was just taken from me...and I started feeling sorry for myself."
Now another day in the pool is simply a blessing for March.
"I'm just so stoked to have the opportunity to play again," said March, an All-MPSF and All-American selection in 2004. "In some ways it was a good thing. That's the way I'm looking at it now."
This season, March's physicality around the goal has kept the Bruins (13-5 overall, 4-2 MPSF) in contention with top-ranked USC, who have remained undefeated and strung together over 40 consecutive victories dating back to last season, and second-ranked Cal, but it's his determination that ultimately makes him an offensive stopper down near the cage.
"A lot of it is determination as an athlete and individual," Krikorian explained about the secrets of playing defense. "When he sets his mind to something, there's nothing that gets into his way...He takes a lot of pride in the way he plays defense."
March may not be the offensive threat that he once was during the UCLA's 2004 national championship season, but the team captain brings a level of intensity every time he steps in the pool.
"I've never been around a guy that wanted to win so badly," Powell said. "When it comes time to shut someone down, he brings it."
Added Krikorian: "It's more of your mindset and your attitude than skill. The good competitors are always good defenders. They take pride in every little thing they do. It's almost a personal thing for Mike. He loves that challenge deep down. That excites him."
And despite still feeling a considerable amount of pain in his back over the course of this season, March has contributed 15 goals, including four multi-goal games, for the Bruins.
"You play through it," he said. "It's a pretty rough sport, so there's always something hurting."
Hurt or not, March has been vital to UCLA's resurging success this season. While his defense might go unnoticed, March's leadership has anchored a young, yet skilled team just finding its rhythm as the season winds down.
But only the Bruins can control whether they will have an opportunity to play for the national championship Dec. 3 at Loyola Marymount.
"We have so much talent," said Powell. "It's going to come from everyone. We're planning on peaking at the right time."