If Justin Parsons and Jon Sibley were at different universities, they would each be the unequivocal starting goalie on their men’s water polo team.
But the way it stands now, returning starter Parsons and redshirt freshman Sibley will both fight for that position all season long for the No. 3 Bears.
“Fight” might be too acerbic a word. Jostle sounds more appropriate, because for these two, the competition is neither a race nor a hurdle blocking the path to achievement. If anything, it’s a key component to Cal’s success and a way for Parsons and Sibley to bolster themselves and their teammates.
Parsons, known as JP within the squad, says that formidable anchors at both ends of the pool during a scrimmage help to strengthen the team for an actual match.
“We give them the toughest time to get the ball into the net,” says the San Diego native in a drawl reminiscent of a surfer boy. He talks with a straight face, but there’s a joke behind his next words.
“I hope we’re not lowering their confidence at all.”
It’s easy to make the argument that Cal possesses the strongest goalie lineup in the MPSF — and possibly the nation. Such depth in the cage is a rarity amongst college teams. Goalies tend to play an entire game without relief, so backup isn’t as vital as it is with the rest of the players, who are swapped out continuously.
An athlete generally won’t sign with a school that already has a strong keeper on the roster because that would lower his chance to play. Sibley was well aware of that when he redshirted last fall and watched from afar as Parsons dominated the cage.
“I knew that it would be hard to get play time when I came here,” Sibley says. “I wanted to be there, to have strong goalie competition every day in training. If I look over and see him working his ass off, I work harder so I can stay in the competition.”
It’s a mindset that never leaves room for error or an off-day in practice. But it also offers built-in motivation to always reach for one rung higher on the ladder to success.
What’s more, it’s a mindset that the two aren’t wholly unacquainted with. After a summer of playing for the U.S. national team at the FINA World Junior Championships in Volos, Greece, Parsons and Sibley are certainly used to competing alongside one another for the same slot.
Training for the Aug. 27 through Sept. 4 tournament was months in the making, and Parsons and Sibley stayed the entire course. Tryouts in February led to monthly commuter flights on Fridays as the boys jetted down to Southern California to train with Olympic-decorated coaches.
“We’ve always said in the back of our head when we went down for those weekends that what we were working for, our main goal, was junior worlds,” Parsons says. “It was do-or-die once we got there.”
All the while, the roster whittled down from 25 to 16 by the end of year. By mid-July the final lineup was released, and Parsons and Sibley were two of 13 young men on it.
Just like at Cal, the situation concerning Parsons and Sibley on the junior national team was unique. Guy Baker, the other head coach for the U.S., couldn’t think of any other time both goalies hailed from the same university.
The competition was close from the start until Parsons suffered a concussion in the spring. With Parsons unable to play for over a month, Sibley took over the role and kept it during the tournament.
According to Baker, the backup goalie is the most difficult position on the team because more often than not he’s the only one who won’t play. The athlete must prepare for the unexpected from the sidelines, all while watching his teammates dive into the match.
But for Sibley, having someone as capable as Parsons ready to take over was a safeguard.
“Last junior worlds there was a much, much worse backup goalie,” Sibley says of his starting position at the 2009 Croatia competition. “JP wasn’t there, so I had to play almost every game. And (this year), JP and I could split. And I knew for a fact that if I ever had a bad game or a bad quarter, JP could come in and save my ass, basically.”
Coming back to Cal at the close of the tournament meant coming full circle. The situation flipped entirely, as Parsons returned to his role as starter while Sibley recuperated from an injury.
But the coaches foresee an even split for matches once Sibley is healthy once more.
“We anticipate they will flip-flop games,” says goalie coach Sean Nolan. “As far as actual starting role goes, I don’t think any one athlete has that. They’ll share until someone shows they’re better than the other.”
The depth is Cal’s secret weapon, a way to keep the defense continuously fresh. Having two people split a four-game weekend tournament is certainly a bonus because there’s less opportunity to tire out.
Baker and Nolan both describe the two athletes’ playing styles as remarkably similar, so there’s hardly a drop off if a substitution occurs.
“You know that you have someone with the same abilities on the sideline,” Parsons says. “You’re not worried about giving up the game.”
Neither one will predict the starting lineup this year. As both have learned, in a race this close the board can change any time due to injury, opponent or ability.
Instead, they’re focused on learning from each other — watching from the sidelines while the other is in the cage and picking up moves that seem especially effective.
And they plan to support the team in any capacity, even if it means sitting out and waiting on the bench.
“I think for both of us, it’s not so much about starting,” Sibley says. “It’s more about how each of us can help the team. There’s not just one person doing all that.”
After all, there are two goalies in this cage.
And it takes two to start a fight.