There is something about No. 7 Pacific that continues to threaten top-ranked teams.
The Tigers (14-11, 1-5 MPSF) remain firmly planted in the bottom half of the conference. They haven’t won many conference games, but they still boast a potent offense that bursts into every game.
“They deserve to be, not a top-four team, but fifth place,” freshman attacker Luka Saponjic said of the Tigers. “If they play good, they can beat every team.”
Matches against No. 1 UCLA and No. 4 Stanford were both decided by one goal in overtime. The Tigers have a knack for tripping up the nation’s finest and leaving opponents scrambling for a late win. It’s a trap for top-tier squads to think the battle won’t be hard fought.
The No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team was no exception in its 9-8 victory on Friday at Spieker Aquatics Center. Even before Pacific took the first goal of the day, the Bears (19-3, 6-1 MPSF) knew the game would be an uphill challenge.
Cal lagged at the start of the match and gave up easy shots. The Tigers quickly exploited that with a three-goal lead halfway through the second period.
“We had a chance to get out and jump on them, but we didn’t,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said. “Then all of a sudden they’re up 4-1.”
The hill was steep but not insurmountable. Cal narrowed its focus on moving the ball — making extra passes to slow down a locked defense. Two-meter defenders such as Zach Greenwood and Blake Kelly stole the ball before it could reach Pacific’s lethal center. A three-goal tear from senior attackers Luka Saponjic, Ivan Rackov and Cory Nasoff brought the score to a 4-4 tie at the end of the first half.
“You have to be pretty mentally tough to go down 4-1 and then tie it up at the half,” Nasoff said. “To go down three goals would be pretty devastating. We came out flat, but when it mattered we took control of our opportunities.”
The rest of the game was a series of scrambling ties from both ends of the pool. Three goals apiece later, the two teams were once again locked in a tie at the end of the third quarter.
A sense of urgency drove down upon the teams with far greater force than the steady evening rain, and both teams got more physical as each tried to one-up the other.
Pacific’s shallow bench left little room for fatigue. The lineup that energetically jumps on higher-ranked opponents is the same lineup that closes matches.
The Bears, on the other hand, can sub in an entirely new lineup upwards of three times a match with little drop-off in performance. In such a close match, that depth became Cal’s sharpest edge over its opponent. Players stepped up when they needed to, taking control of the game or pointing out holes in Pacific’s strategy.
“Nervous wasn’t it,” Everist said of his reaction heading into the final quarter. “I’m waiting for (Cal) to make a play, not hoping. It’s not a matter of if, but when someone will step up.”