At Saturday’s Cal Bear Invitational, the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team will open its season with a home advantage.
And if everything goes according to plan, that’s how the squad will end it as well.
For the second year in a row the Spieker Aquatics Center will play host to the NCAA Championships, and this year the Bears are looking to one-up last year’s second-place finish.
But an entire season of buildup stands between the team and its goal, and it all starts with Saturday’s matches against No. 13 UC Davis and No. 14 Santa Clara, at 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m, respectively.
“The first few matches are important,” attacker Luka Saponjic said. “We need to give 100 percent of ourselves to start off (the) season ready.”
Saponjic’s sentiments are especially on point; with many of the athletes representing their home countries in international tournaments this summer, Cal didn’t get much opportunity for team-wide practice. In fact, four key players are still in Greece for the World Junior Championships, including Justin Parsons and Jon Sibley, both of whom will compete to start in goal this year.
Yet coach Kirk Everist doesn’t even seem worried about the gaps in his lineup; in fact, the depth on his roster is one of the team’s greatest assets. The weekend’s starting six is loaded with standout players such as senior co-captain and reigning National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov, junior Giacomo Cupido and seniors Saponjic and Cory Nasoff.
As far as offense goes, experienced players such as Saponjic promise to be strong scorers while simultaneously reestablishing team roles. Meanwhile, as Everist has begun to repeatedly stress this season, strong defense will be the deciding factor between winning and losing.
And as for goalie this weekend, there’s still senior Wil Toppen, who has an entire season of conference starts from his sophomore season under his belt and has practiced with the team all summer.
“We don’t drop off too much, if at all, with Wil in the cage,” Everist said.
Cal may not have much trouble in the lineup, but the regulations could pose a potential problem. Collegiate water polo operates under slightly different rules from both high school and tournament water polo. With no prior collegiate tilts to draw from this early in the season, there’s still some ambiguity over how everyone will perform. The weekend is all about focusing on a core group of players that need to get crucial minutes in before major tournaments such as the NorCal and SoCal Invitationals.
Rules changes aside, everything about this weekend — the location, the lineup, even the competition — favors the Bears. While Davis and Santa Clara are both in the top five in the WWPA conference and can certainly give the Bears a run for their money, this weekend is in Cal’s favor.
After all, when Cal faced off against the Aggies and Broncos at last year’s invite, the Bears walked away with 14-4 and 14-5 victories, respectively.
But for Everist, back-to-back wins aren’t the greatest goals this weekend.
“I want to see a good focus and energy from the team, the preparation and mindset of a gameday,” he said. “If those things don’t come to play, we’re going to see some mistakes further down the line. I want to see how mentally ready we are.”