It was hard to tell if that first goal of the day came as a surprise to the No. 4 Cal men’s water polo team. Either way, less than two minutes into the first quarter, the ball sailed past Cal’s goalie into the back of the net, giving one of the MPSF’s worst teams a 1-0 advantage over one of the MPSF’s best.
But No. 8 UC Irvine’s lead was short-lived. Less than 20 seconds later, center Ayal Keren of the Bears (16-3, 4-1 MPSF) maneuvered past a defender and pushed the ball into the opposing net, bringing the match to a tie.
The Anteaters (13-9, 1-4 MPSF) kept fighting for the rest of the game, but never pulled ahead. By the end of the first quarter, the Bears were up 4-1. From there, the team propelled its way to a 14-6 victory at Spieker Aquatics Center on Sunday.
“We did a good job of not giving them the opportunity to get back in the game,” Zach Greenwood said. “I thought, after that first quarter, that as long as we kept doing what we were doing we weren’t going to lose.”
Until a 10-9 defeat of No. 7 Pacific the day before, the Anteaters were winless at the bottom of the conference. Irvine was certainly riding Saturday’s high, challenging Cal with mobility and ejections from the first whistle.
“They like to get their goals from 6-on-5’s,” Greenwood said. “That’s what Irvine depends on.”
But even with 12 earned ejections, the Anteaters could only capitalize on four. A win for Cal was pretty much a guarantee, and at times the Bears’ play reflected that. Earlier in the season, the Bears demolished lesser opponents in tournament play, ranking up 20-plus final scores and leaving opponents lucky to scrape a half-dozen points.
In this weekend’s conference game, Cal was slow to start and couldn’t always capitalize on little opportunities such as clear shots or breakaways. Balls bounced off the posts or sailed over the top of the net, and passes were clobbered up by opposing players.
By halftime the Bears were up at a comfortable 8-3 and were utilizing their deep bench; but their level of play was noticeably lower than against such opponents as No. 2 USC or No. 1 UCLA.
“We talked about defense and about starting to get more aggressive on offense,” Greenwood said about the halftime talk.
The talk paid off. By the fourth quarter Cal exhibited a patented, polished aggression that resulted in trick shots and 6-on-5 success.
In the final period Perry Short arced a pass to Marin Balarin, who was still facing his own goal and had a defender on his back. In one fluid motion Balarin backhanded the ball past Irvine’s goalie to bring the score up to 13-6.
The game was decided at that point, but with one minute left Irvine’s Sam Figueroa took a five-meter penalty shot. Figueroa pumped up and lobbed it the short distance to the goal, but goalie Justin Parsons easily lifted his arm and blocked a final point.
“We were on our game,” Greenwood said. “We didn’t notice anything too extreme. No collapses or anything.”