In 42 years of competition, the UCLA men's swim team has won just two Pacific-10 Conference championships, none since 1971. Going into this year's conference finals, the Bruins are expected to finish anywhere from second to fourth.
This is not to say that UCLA isn't competitive. In 1982, when the Bruins won their only National Collegiate Athletic Assn. title, they finished second in the conference behind California. In the last 15 years, UCLA has finished second in the Pac-10s 11 times.
And this suits Coach Ron Ballatore just fine.
"Our goal has, and always will be, to concentrate on the NCAAs, not the Pac-10s," said Ballatore, who, in his ninth year in Westwood, has coached 18 Olympians, four of whom earned gold medals in the 1984 Summer Games. "We've already accomplished our goal: We qualified 10 swimmers for the NCAAs in the U.S. Open in December."
Ballatore said the conference championship will be used to qualify more swimmers for the national finals. The 10 who have qualified will not shave for the Pac-10 meet, which will begin tonight and end Sunday. The meet will be at the Cerritos Swim Center.
Shaving is a ritual in swimming. It's usually done before big meets, such as conference and national finals. By shaving their body hair, swimmers have a psychological advantage (and, some say, a physical one) once they hit the water.
Shaving, coupled with tapering (resting), usually produces faster times.
The favorite to win the conference, Stanford, will shave, as will Cal, USC and Arizona State, the Bruins' main competition. Stanford has won the conference five years in a row.
"I don't see anyone beating them," Ballatore said. "We'll battle USC and ASU for the third spot (with Cal finishing second). We have a lot of athletes who are not very good during the regular season. (UCLA finished with just a 6-5 dual meet record.) We don't expect to be good for the Pac-10s, although we will certainly try to win it. Like I said, we're only interested in sending as many swimmers as we can to the NCAAs and then trying to win that."
The Bruins don't have that one standout swimmer as they've had in the past. Swimmers like Brian Goodell, Bill Barrett, Robin Leamy, Bruce Hayes and Tom Jager were able to go into a meet and score many of UCLA's points by themselves. This season, UCLA has had to spread the wealth, and Ballatore said there are a number of swimmers who are capable of scoring in the two postseason tournaments.
Perhaps the best UCLA swimmer is sophomore distance man Craig Oppel. UCLA's most valuable swimmer last year, Oppel has already made the cuts in the 100-, 200- and 500-yard freestyle events and won't be shaving.
"The 10 guys who've qualified are tired," Oppel said. "Since we don't concentrate on the Pac-10s, we've been training all along. The Pac-10s are for guys who haven't made the cuts, so the rest of us will just be team swimmers and cheer those guys on."
Other Bruins who have qualified for the NCAA meet include Peter Rohde, the All-American transfer from Pepperdine; Rob Graner, a sophomore who has qualified in the 50-free with a time of 23.38; and Giovanni Minervini, the Italian who won an NCAA title last year in the 100-yard breaststroke with a career best time of 53.75. Minervini has qualified for that event again this season.
Minervini, who also swims the 200-yard breaststroke, suffered a partially collapsed lung during the season, and Ballatore said he might not swim the 200-breast at the conference meet.
"But I think I'm fine now; I'm almost positive I'll swim it," Minervini said. "The 100 is my specialty. People think I should win it easily. But you never know from one year to the next. There are always good swimmers coming up every season."
Rohde, from Denmark, said this meet will be exciting "because I get the chance to swim against some good schools for a change," something he didn't get to do at Pepperdine. Rohde has qualified in three individual events (the 50- and 100-freestyles and the 200-medley) as well as all three medley relays.
"I've never swum so fast in preseason before," Rohde said. "I know we don't gear up for the conference finals, and I won't shave since I've already made my cuts, but I'll still be giving 110%. I'd like to score some points for the team."
That will be tough to do. Rohde faces some stiff competition. In the 200-IM, he will go against Pablo Morales, the Stanford swimmer who won three NCAA events last year, including the 200-IM. In the freestyle sprints, Matt Biondi of Cal has to be the favorite. Last season, Biondi won the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyles at the national meet.
The Pac-10 meet will be a good indication of the NCAA meet April 2-4 at the University of Texas in Austin. The Pac-10 is the best conference in the country. Stanford has won the NCAA title two years in a row to go with its five straight conference crowns. The conference placed six teams in last year's NCAA top 10.
So it's obvious that you don't have to win the conference to do well in the NCAAs.
"That's the philosophy they've (UCLA) taken," said Cal Coach Nort Thornton. "Just like the dual meets don't really matter for conference, it's the same with the conference not meaning much for NCAAs. UCLA just stretches it out more. Because they lost to USC in the last meet of the season, I'd pick Stanford first, then USC and ASU, and UCLA and Cal battling for fourth."
Said Skip Kenney, the Stanford coach: "There's not a lot of positive things I can say about UCLA's chances. They have a lot of one-event swimmers. Not to sound negative, but they need some more Barretts and Leamys. I guess we're the favorites because we've won all our conference meets. Even though I'm not picking UCLA to do that well in the Pac-10s, I think they have an excellent chance of winning the national title.
"UCLA is a better NCAA team than a Pac-10 team."
And Ron Ballatore and his Bruins wouldn't have it any other way.