This weekend at the NorCal Invitational in Stockton, Calif., the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team will get its first look at the rest of the MPSF competition.
There will be plenty more throughout the season.
While the Bears (2-0) have something scheduled for every weekend from now until the NCAA Championships in December, fellow MPSF teams make up the majority of their opponents, even in nonconference play. At both the NorCal Invitational and next month’s SoCal Invitational, the MPSF is heavily, if not fully, represented. Cal sees this as neither an advantage or a disadvantage, simply a product of the season.
“Every team is in the same boat,” coach Kirk Everist said. “It’s just a matter of taking advantage of the opportunity we’re given. You can’t get complacent because teams get to know you well.”
However, playing the first of many faceoffs this weekend has an inherent benefit: after scrimmaging amongst themselves and other teams during the summer offseason and whipping lower-rung competition in its season opener, the Bears finally get the opportunity to play against high-level opponents.
When it comes to NCAA rankings, the MPSF is top-heavy; all nine teams occupy the top nine spots, and all nine will be at the invitational. In fact, with schools such as No. 11 UC Davis and No. 13 Concordia competing as well, 14 of the 16 teams competing at the NorCal Invitational hold NCAA rankings.
“The level of play is going to go up from where we were,” Everist said. “The intensity, the focus is going to up because it’s a season game. We have to match it.”
According to Everist, the invite isn’t set up like a traditional single-elimination tournament with consolation rounds. Instead, it functions mainly as a way to maximize games played, allowing winners and losers to continue to compete. The NCAA restricts the number of competition days, but not the number of games played in those days.
Cal, for instance, will start off against an unranked Vanguard. If the team wins, it will move on later in the day to play the winner of the UC Davis/Pepperdine game. After that, it’s pretty much anyone’s guess as to how the tournament will go. Each team will still play a total of four games, with final 1 through 16-place finishes doled out at the end.
However, the final place won’t matter to the Bears as much as simply playing a few good games and executing a ‘team plan’ based on chemistry between new and returning athletes rather than strategy.
“It’s nothing specific,” senior captain Charlie Steffens said. “Just sort of to remain calm in tough situations, to always play as a team, to know we’ve done the preparation when it comes to game time.”
Continuing their perfect record and scoping out the competition isn’t far from their minds, either. Whether facing a reigning force like No. 1 USC or a squad further down the rankings, Cal approaches each match as if facing a top tier opponent.
“This is the start of the journey toward being a very consistent and high level team no matter who we play,” Everist said. “For the first time in the season we’re going to get challenged.”