Bears draw from deep bench for SoCal Invitational

Eugene W. Lau/File

The biggest drawback to a weekend water polo tournament is the fatigue that inevitably plagues a team, the kind that results from quick turnarounds between games.

But the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team isn’t the only squad that will encounter this problem this weekend at the SoCal Invitational in Long Beach, Calif., where the Bears will face No. 15 Santa Clara on Saturday at 11:10 a.m. Every team, every potential opponent, faces the same dilemma of how to stay fresh for each of the four games.

The solution doesn’t necessarily lie in 5-hour Energy’s or the Gatorade G series.

It’s a deep bench — something the Bears readily possess.

“A lot of players can contribute,” coach Kirk Everist said. “We’ll use them liberally. It allows us to keep energy up, to keep our abilities up.”

So far this season, Cal (8-1) has had very little drop off throughout the course of a game. Strong starters such as National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov, who’s already notched 34 goals, set the pace for every match. Redshirt freshman Blake Kelly and true freshman Aleksa Saponjic have easily adjusted to collegiate play to be two of the top five scorers on the team.

And utilities Ayal Keren and Marin Balarin have also proven potent at center, answering a crucial hurdle Everist faced at the onset of the season over the fate of that position.

“The question mark we had at the beginning of the season isn’t there anymore,” Everist said.

That talent is enough to make a good squad. But Cal has enough reserve players to start an entire match, as evidenced when the squad toppled Fresno Pacific, 18-1, last weekend using a majority of second-string players.

And that is the difference between a good team and a top team — the latter never tires out.

“Teams with a lot of depth benefit the most (at tournaments),” redshirt freshman goalie Jon Sibley said. “We have a lot of depth. We’re ready to go.”

Cal will open up the SoCal Invitational at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base against Santa Clara (9-6), a team the Bears have already faced twice this season. In both matches, Cal’s defense rapidly shut down the opposing players to easily overpower the Broncos by wide margins.

Afterwards, the team will move on to play either Pacific or Loyola Marymount. From there, potential opponents are unpredictable.

“When you don’t know who you’re going to play the next day, we focus mainly on ourselves, on how we attack different situations that might arise,” Everist said.

The Bears are confident that they can make it to the final round. While it’s not guaranteed, there’s a good chance USC will be there, vying for their ninth straight SoCal Invitational title.

“If all goes to plan, we’ll see USC in the championship,” Sibley said.

Everist cautioned the team not to get ahead of itself. Fortunately for him, though, there are plenty of players to draw from in order to field good play.

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