Bears stress defense for Pacific match

If it wasn’t for five goals in the fourth quarter, the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team would have lost to No. 8 Pacific in the second round of the SoCal Invitational.

As it is, the Bears (17-3, 5-1) scraped off an 11-9 victory in the final minutes of the Oct. 1 game. But Cal hasn’t forgotten the impact the Tigers can have on a top-tier team.

“I’m going to be honest, going into the fourth quarter, I was less than confident,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said. “They were playing better than us for three quarters. It took a great fourth quarter for us to beat them.”

That attitude hasn’t changed as Cal prepares to face the Tigers (11-9, 1-4 MPSF) in Friday’s 5 p.m. conference matchup at Spieker Aquatics Center.

With a losing record in the conference, Pacific could be easily overlooked as a lower-rung team that can’t close matches.

First impressions are deceiving with this conference dark horse. A Sept. 17 home loss to Stanford was decided by one goal — in overtime. A 12-13 loss at UCLA last Friday came down to sudden death overtime.

“They’ve done exactly what I thought they’d do: give a lot of tough teams a run for their money,” Everist said. “They’ve proven they can play with anybody.”

Such a role won’t lead to a national championship berth for the Tigers. But it does remind the NCAA-bound schools in the top half of the conference that an upset could occur at any time.

In that regard, Pacific is indeed a “formidable” opponent, as Cal sophomore Giacomo Cupido said. The Tigers boast a strong offense paced by Goran Tomasevic, a Cutino award finalist and arguably the best center in the country.

Tomasevic could force Cal to transition into a zone defense fairly early in the match, which would hurt its speed and rhythm on transition. The second that opposing schools attempt to shut down Tomasevic, strong two-meter perimeter shooters are on the wings waiting to notch goals in his place.

Fortunately for the Bears, two-meter defense is the area of play they’ve prided themselves most on this season. Led by players such as Cupido, Zach Greenwood and Blake Kelly, Cal’s defense is third in the conference with an average of only six goals allowed per game.

The team hasn’t introduced radical new ideas in practice; rather, the Bears have heavily focused on sharpening what they already know they excel in.

In Tuesday’s practice, the squad reenacted possible Pacific offensive drives in order to test its own defensive reaction.

In no other area of the pool will the match be decided than at Cal’s own two-meter line.

“It’s really strength on strength,” Everist said of the match, “We’re good at two-meter defense, they’re good at two-meter offense. That battle will be important to who controls the game.”