Cal rides wave of patient passing in win over Pepperdine

For Collin Smith, the goal was easy.

Down 2-3 to No. 6 Pepperdine in the first quarter, the No. 4 Cal men’s water polo team was setting up a play to tie the match. The team was pressing the opposing goal and working the ball on the right side of the pool before senior Cory Nasoff got a hand on it at the upper left position.

Then Hunter Gettelfinger got his turn to handle on the right side once more. Before long, he arced the ball across the pool to a waiting Smith on the left perimeter. The right-handed attacker didn’t leave much time for build-up or hesitation; in seconds the ball was in the back of the net and the score was sitting at 3-3. The goal propelled the Bears to an 11-8 victory over the Waves.

“It was just putting the ball in the cage,” Smith said. “Hunter and Cory did all the work. They make an easy pass and it’s an easy shot.”

Patience in passing was a thing of beauty in Friday evening’s matchup against Pepperdine (10-7, 2-2) at Spieker Aquatics Center. However, it’s also been a point of emphasis for the Bears (15-3, 3-1) throughout the past week. After a sudden death loss to No. 2 USC in which rushed passes and shots led to an unusually high number of turnovers, Cal prepared for Friday evening’s tilt with spread-out attacks.

The narrowed focus persisted and paid off, even in the midst of Pepperdine’s overbrimming emotion.

“(The opponents) get really worked up, celebrating after every play,” Smith said. “If they get us worked up as well, then we can make a mistake. We have to keep calm and counteract that so we don’t make mistakes.”

Pepperdine kept the match close throughout the first three periods and was able to jump to a lead once more in the second. But at the end of the first half senior attacker Zach Greenwood hammered in a shot that allowed his team to regain — and subsequently keep — a lead.

Goals like Saponjic’s and Smith’s were a study in what Cal has done best this season: shooting from the outside. But for the first time a crucial piece of the strategy — strong center players — began to reap results. Ayal Keren and Marin Balarin each prompted three ejections and gave the left-heavy squad more balance, and Keren even nabbed a point for himself.

“We tried to spread out and get good presence at the two-meter,” coach Kirk Everist said. “We wanted to move on (Peperdine), make ourselves a little more mobile.”

Spreading out offensively was the best strategy the Bears could have possibly utilized. It meant that goals were the result of a whole-team effort and came from more than just a couple dominating athletes. In fact, while National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov paced the team with four goals, the remaining seven each came from a different player.

“We’re continuing to work on team play,” Smith said. “We’re looking for each other.”