Bears open MPSF play with two straight wins

With the exception of one extra goal, there was very little difference for the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team between Friday’s match against No. 3 UCLA and the SoCal semifinal match a week before.

At the SoCal Invitational, the Bears (14-2, 2-0 in the MPSF) broke away from a 2-2 tie at the end of the first period, ripped up a 5-2 scoring advantage in the second half and finished with an 8-4 win.

This time, Cal and UCLA once again played neck and neck in the first two periods of the MPSF season opener before the Bears stole the match, 8-5.

“We had just played (each other) the week before, and it was the first league game,” coach Kirk Everist said. “Both teams were amped up, I think.”

The Bruins (11-3, 1-1 in the MPSF) fought hard to keep the first half of Friday’s 7 p.m. match at Spieker Aquatics Center in Los Angeles close. UCLA’s Josh Samuels broke the Bears’ 3-2 advantage to tie the match at the half.

From there, UCLA opened up the third period with a goal to give the squad its first lead of the game. It didn’t last long.

Just as in the SoCal tournament, Cal completely stole the second half. National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov regained a tie on a five meter penalty shot. From there, senior attackers Luka Saponjic and Zach Greenwood and Rackov each notched points to give the Bears a 5-2 scoring spree in the second half — team numbers identical to the SoCal performance.

For Everist, there was never a point in the first half where he thought his team couldn’t win.

“I knew we’d get our opportunities in the second half,” he said. “We were in a good spot. We were controlling the tempo the way we wanted to.”

However, even a controlled tempo left room for error. The Bears’ back court drew multiple ejections in transitions, as well as multiple fouls that resulted in turnovers before the offense could take a shot.

“There was a stretch where we just didn’t get the ball off,” Everist said. “It might be a matter of, were we being too aggressive? We didn’t have as many offensive opportunities as we should have had. Fortunately we were ahead, but we didn’t want to die on just a couple of chances.”

Friday’s results — Cal’s first conference win of the season — certainly gave the squad a boost for the rest of the weekend. But the team didn’t have much time to bask in its glory.

The Bears played No. 14 Long Beach the following day, jumping on the 49ers (11-5, 0-1 in the MPSF) in the first half with a 5-1 advantage. That margin increased steadily throughout the rest of the match before culminating in a 14-6 win.

Cal capped off the weekend with one last mini-road trip down to UC San Diego, where it handed the No. 9 Tritons (11-4) an 18-8 routing.