Young Cal squad sets new milestones in 2011

Bears earn first conference crown, take second at NCAAs

Eugene W. Lau/File
Junior goalie Stephanie Peckham was named the MPSF Tournament MVP after racking up 26 saves over three games.

Last season was a breakthrough campaign for the Cal women’s water polo team.

After capping the program’s first ever NCAA Tournament appearance with a third place finish, the program had established itself as a national power — conference championships and title game appearances would not be far off.

Apparently, coach Richard Corso and company couldn’t even wait a year.

Never mind losing six senior scorers who accounted for nearly half the team’s offense in 2010. Never mind starting four underclassmen — including a pair of freshmen — in the pool.

The Bears set new milestones in 2011 — rising to No. 2 in the country, capturing their first MPSF Tournament crown, and storming into the national championship match before falling to Stanford.

It was a level of progress that surprised everyone, even members of the team itself.

“I would like to say yes,”  junior goalie Stephanie Peckham said when asked if she expected her team’s level of success. “But I think people had their doubts, and thought we’d be in the middle of the pack.”

With Peckham and fellow junior star Emily Csikos as veteran leaders, the cupboard certainly wasn’t bare for Corso. However, Cal’s surprising surge never would not  have happened without a slew of stellar underclassmen. Thrown into the starting line-up from the get-go, newcomers Ashley Young and Kelly Mendoza combined for 68 goals on the season —  Young finished second on the team with 41 scores.

The biggest revelation was sophomore left-hander Breda Vosters, who became the team’s deadliest offensive weapon this spring. Vosters jumped from an 18-goal freshman season to lead Cal with 63 in 2011 — in three different contests, she racked up five goals or more.

“She’s such a good shooter,” sophomore Dana Ochsner said after Vosters lit up San Diego State for six goals in April. “She’s not going to make them all, but I have confidence when she has the ball.”

With a bevvy of young shooters and a stingy defense, the Bears captured their first six conference games, a stretch that featured a season sweep of the Los Angeles schools and their first win in Hawaii since 2003. Cal responded from an 8-5 loss in the Big Splash with a three-game run to win the MPSF and a pair of convincing NCAA victories for a berth in the national title game.

In the championship match, the Bears’ youth showed.

Against a Stanford team loaded with experience, Cal slipped up in critical situations — committing key offensive turnovers, letting in a soft goal from long distance and misfiring on a penalty shot that turned into a transition goal.

“It was a rough game for us … but I am not going to let our last four quarters dampen what was otherwise outstanding season,” Corso said after the contest. “This is the best finish this program has even had and I am so proud of what we were able to accomplish. This season was a lot of fun.”

Cal will have to wait until next season to claim what narrowly eluded them the team this year: a first ever NCAA championship. With everyone returning to Spieker Aquatics Complex in 2012, the Bears may not have to wait much longer.

Ed Yevelev covers women’s water polo.