A small month-long window is as close as the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team gets to slowing down.
It started with an 11-8 home victory over No. 9 Pepperdine on Oct. 21 and spreads out across five matches until an away game at UC Davis on Nov. 12. In that time frame, the squad plays half its conference matches, all against lesser opponents that, if Cal is narrowed in on its game, could easily translate into record-boosting wins.
This weekend the Bears find themselves in the middle of this window as they bus down to Santa Barbara, Calif., to take on No. 5 UCSB in a noon match on Saturday.
“We have to maintain our position (in the rankings), so we don’t pull something out of our hat at the end,” Cal coah Kirk Everist said.
So far, the team’s position has been locked in at the top half of the leaderboards. The Bears (16-3, 4-1 MPSF) have only dropped one MPSF matchup, against the No. 2 powerhouse Trojans. Other than that, Cal has drubbed every conference rival by a margin of at least three points.
Despite only returning three upperclassmen (all juniors), the Gauchos (14-7, 2-2 MPSF) have refused to call this season a rebuilding one. The team has gone toe-to-toe with opponents at the top of the conference, as evidenced in its Oct. 9 game against No. 4 Stanford. The match was tied at 5-5 in the final minutes before the Cardinal intercepted a UCSB shot and turned it into a winning goal.
The Gauchos also boast two left-handed attackers in transfer Jesse Gillespie and sophomore Matt Gronow, which means an equally strong offensive drive on both the left and right sides.
“We’ve got to focus defensively because they’ll really attack us,” Everist said. “We have to definitely recognize that (left) side of the pool as a threat. But we’re not going to completely worry about one or two players.”
As with the other matches inside this window, the Bears haven’t spent much time assessing their weekend opponent. Rather, the squad has turned inward, going back to basics in fitness training and strategy.
The switch occurred at the same time that Cal transitioned from two-a-day tournaments to conference play. The extra time between matches meant that the team could afford to spend more time on individualized workouts.
Moreover, the window of less threatening opponents means that the Bears can effectively use matches like this weekend’s as training ground for the MPSF tournament at the end of the month.
“Our success for the rest of the season is more hinged on us,” Everist said. “How we execute our style of play. We haven’t played anyone who changed how we play.”
The team-focused mentality is essential at this time of year, with the Bears already looking toward the NCAA Championships.
“Whatever the cliché is of controlling your own destiny,” Everist said. “But in reality, we do, if we keep winning games and finish the conference strong.”