As night fell upon the championship game at the Kap7 SoCal Invitational Sunday, the Bruins found themselves in an uncharacteristic early deficit.
A trio of Trojan goals in the opening minutes of the game invigorated the USC bench, and the mass of Trojan fans across the pool stood on their feet and roared.
It wasn’t long until Ryder Roberts silenced them.
With 4:47 left in the first half, the junior attacker drove to the goal from the wing. Quickly reading the nearest defender, Roberts faked a shot, wrapped his arm around the defender’s waist and propelled himself past the aggressive Trojan.
In the blink of an eye, Roberts was face-to-face with USC goalie McQuin Baron.
As the 6-foot-9, 230-pound goalie flailed to prevent the inevitable, Roberts lobbed a shot that arched over Baron’s arm and landed in the goal.
The once-deafening sea of red and gold on the sidelines fell silent and sunk back into the seats. In just 11 minutes, the Bruins had a 4-3 lead and Roberts had a hat trick.
“He is truly special,” coach Adam Wright said. “He played the whole game (against USC) and pretty much the whole semifinal except a minute or two. … It’s so hard to play a full game, and for him to be in the moment all the time and willing to step up and shoot the ball, or make a good pass, it’s impressive. It’s really impressive.”
A 6-foot-2, 170-pound lefty, Roberts has tallied the statistics of a much larger player and captured the nation’s attention through his three-year evolution into a key offensive and defensive player on the Bruins’ roster.
As a freshman in 2013, Roberts made 23 starts and was the team’s third-highest scorer. Though an immediate offensive weapon for the Bruins, Roberts tallied 36 steals that season and proved his rigor on defense as well.
In 2014, Roberts’ abilities earned him third-team All-American. Despite missing seven games due to injury, he finished fifth on the team in scoring and led the team in field blocks.
Roberts debuted his junior season over the summer at the World University Games, where he tied for ninth in the tournament and led Team USA with 19 goals.
“In my opinion, nobody even realizes what he was able to do in Korea,” Wright said after the USC match. “He was the best player in the World University Games – a little college guy playing against 27-year-old men.”
Roberts was named the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation/Kap7 Player of the Week on Monday after scoring 10 goals in UCLA’s first ever SoCal Tournament win, and he is the Bruins’ current scoring leader this season.
Heading into the remainder of conference play, Roberts already has 33 recorded goals. The attacker tallied a career-high seven goals on Oct. 2 when the Bruins traveled to Malibu to face Pepperdine for the third time this season.
“There are not many people his size that play lockdown defense the way he does,” said junior goalie Garrett Danner. “Lefties aren’t known to play awesome defense, that’s just the way of the game, and Ryder has found a way to be a lockdown defender and be a top goal scorer in the country. … It’s incredible.”
Though Roberts’ growth over the past three years has transformed him into one of the Bruins’ top goal scorers, he knows that the team’s success has come from each player selflessly adhering to a balanced, “we not I” approach.
“We’ve been working in practice about being more active on offense and it’s paying off,” Roberts said. “Outside shots are going in, centers are always doing a great job holding deep water … I just do my job and other people do theirs.”
As UCLA’s win streak extends to 17-0 in 2015, Roberts’ ability to stay cool under pressure and silence opposing crowds will come in handy as the competition heats up in coming weeks.
And luckily for Bruin fans, Roberts is just getting started.
“He throws the team sometimes on his back, you see it out there,” Wright said. “He’s certainly put himself in the category of one of the top players in college water polo without a debate.”