Bears cross MPSF chasm for weekend match

In the world of collegiate men’s water polo, there is a wide chasm that splits the MPSF.

The mere spectator, overly reliant on stats and rankings, wouldn’t even know it existed. After all, the MPSF is the nation’s most cutthroat conference, and all nine teams have held a top-10 slot in NCAA rankings since opening weekend. Even No. 8 UC Irvine, who hunkers down at last place in the conference, has a winning record.

But this chasm is real and determined weekly by the powerhouses at the top: UCLA, USC, Stanford and Cal, which all come in at one through four in the nation. These four have locked in a dead heat all season long, treating wins and losses like trading cards among one another. Then the drop-off, and the bottom half of the conference emerges out from under the powerhouses’ shadows.

At no other time has this been more apparent for the Bears (15-3, 3-1 MPSF) than now, when they prepare to face the Anteaters (12-8, 0-3 MPSF) in Sunday’s noon matchup at Spieker Aquatics Center.

As a team without a conference win, the Anteaters remain firmly planted on the opposite bank of the chasm. But as a nationally ranked force, the squad is still nonetheless a solid opponent.

“They’re a team that shouldn’t surprise us, but they have the potential to upset a top team,” senior co-captain Ivan Rackov said. “If we’re not 100 percent focused, they’re definitely going to give us a lot of trouble.”

So if the secret to success is focus, then what did the Bears focus on this week?

The answer lies most prominently in capitalizing on, as coach Kirk Everist said, “the little things” that occur multiple times throughout a game and of which a superior team will take advantage.

It’s an area of play Cal has been trying to improve, especially after “little things” such as too many turnovers cost the team a sudden death loss to No. 2 USC on Oct. 15. With startling efficiency, the team focused on little else the following week and was able to cut the number of turnovers in half in its win against No. 6 Pepperdine last Friday.

With a longer hiatus between matches this week, the Bears went after two interlinked areas of improvement: man-up and man-down opportunities.

“A lot of it comes down to 6-on-5, 5-on-6 opportunities,” Everist said. “We’re constantly working on it. You try to get the guys to work for something specific each time. Focus on it in practice, then maybe there’s a situation like it in the game.”

If it sounds like Cal has been focusing more on itself than the opponents this week, that’s because it has. The squad didn’t pull out the scouting reports and video until today. UC Irvine is, after all, in the bottom half of the MPSF. Sunday’s game isn’t a throwaway, but it’s certainly not a dogfight, either. In the end, a win against a lower-ranked opponents only boosts Cal’s record in case it needs to fight for the at-large bid for NCAA Championships.

True to MPSF form the Anteaters still pose a threat. Redshirt sophomore Mitch Wise in particular is second in goals in the conference, with an average of 2.8 points per game.

But even Wise straddles a chasm, as Cal’s own Rackov sits one rung higher.