Justin Parsons didn’t earn MPSF Player of the Week last Tuesday for nothing.
The starting goalie is the last line of defense on the No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team. In Saturday’s home match against No. 4 USC, Parsons made clutch saves — including taking a ball to the face — and kept it up after the match went into overtime and then sudden death.
“It’s a product of good defense in front of him as well,” coach Kirk Everist said.
But the final shot of the day, the one that mattered most, was the one that neither the defense nor Parsons could stop.
USC’s center Jeremy Davie nabbed an assist from Nikola Vavic and sent the ball into the back of the net, and the Trojans edged out the Bears, 9-8, at Speiker Aquatics Center.
“We can’t be giving up natural goals in center, like the game-winner,” Everist said. “We’ve got to work on that, try to limit those opportunities.”
Cal (14-3, 2-1 in the MPSF) and USC (12-2, 3-0) are arguably the top two teams in the country, which made for an intense matchup. Both squads run deep benches that enable them to play upwards of 13 athletes per match and accumulate goals from multiple standouts.
But USC was the superior team on Saturday.
National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov took the first goal of the day for Cal. A penalty shot from Collin Smith and a power play goal from Aleksa Saponjic raised the Bears’ lead to 3-2 at the end of the first quarter.
However, at the end of the half the Trojans had brought the score to a 4-4 tie.
Cal’s offense sputtered in the face of the zone defense, missing a few key opportunities that could have rewritten the outcome of the match. Attackers paused on shots and relied on perimeter shooting. A study in opposites, the USC offense managed to exploit holes at the two meter and quickly sink points in.
“We can’t let that happen,” senior attacker Luka Saponjic said. “We have to play better defense. Don’t let goals in from two meters. It’s better they shoot from eight to 10 meters out.”
By the fourth quarter both teams were burning through timeouts and trying to break a 7-7 tie, but the game went into overtime. Cal took the first goal in extra minutes after Ayal Keren blocked a USC shot in the field, which led to Giacomo Cupido driving the ball to the other end of the pool before an assist to Cory Nasoff.
But the Trojans responded in the second overtime period to bring the score back to a tie, this time 8-8. By the onset of sudden death, both teams fought with desperation.
The weekend’s loss was a blow to Cal, who had an otherwise perfect record in the MPSF. But Everist kept the season in perspective. While the Bears still plan to meet the Trojans in the championship once more, they also know they have kinks to work out on both sides of the ball.
“The guys will be motivated,” Everist said. “After a loss you tend to refocus. You’re certainly not going to pat yourself on the back. It was one game. We’re still in a pretty good spot.”