Helicopters hovered miles above campus late Tuesday night as the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team ran 6-on-5 drills. The noise from the rotors cut harshly through the air, forcing coaches and players to raise their voices a few decibels higher just to be heard above the din.
Beyond the walls of the Spieker Aquatics Center, chaos threatened on the steps of Sproul Hall. But within the confines of the pool, the day’s excitement evaporated in the face of narrowed discipline and drive.
The Bears (19-3, 6-1 MPSF) turned the distraction into an advantage. The noise wasn’t altogether welcome, but the players nonetheless rose to the challenge of confronting it. After all, when Cal plays No. 4 Stanford at 5:15 p.m. this Saturday in Stanford, Calif., the crowd’s shouts will be more deafening than the noise of the helicopters.
“From a coach’s standpoint, they can’t hear you anyway,” coach Kirk Everist said. “It’s hard to hear the guy next to you. It does create a little bit of a distraction, but you got to communicate more.”
There are faded pictures in the water polo office of previous Big Splashes, including Everist’s final one at Stanford in 1988. In each, it is impossible to see where the pool deck ends and the aluminum bleachers begin as fans throng the area. This year, just like every other year, should look no different.
The two teams have jostled alongside one another for the same top-four rankings since Sept., and the outcome of this match determines which squad gets a top-two seed in the Nov. 25-27 MPSF Tournament. The rivals have split results in two earlier matchups: Cal took an 8-7 win at the NorCal Invitational in Sept., and Stanford (13-7, 5-3 MPSF) nabbed an overtime decision at the SoCal Invite a few weeks later.
Such close results are the work of closely matched rosters. Like the Bears, the Cardinal does not possess one true and lethal center; rather, utility players such as true freshman Alex Bowen, who has the third most goals in the conference, quickly drive to the hole when the opportunity arises.
“There might be two guys in the pool who can do that,” Everist said. “You have to be aware of which guy is going (to center) and which guy stays out on perimeter.”
Meanwhile, their defense, ranked second in the conference and one rung above Cal’s, utilizes constant mobility.
“They’re fast and active on defense,” Everist said. “They don’t just sit around and put a hand up. They’re always harassing you.”
Of course, Cal ran the same strategies itself for most of the season and won’t change that on the home stretch. The Bears have prided themselves on defense this season, yet it is the offense that steadily rose to the top of the conference with an average of 12.5 goals per game. Consistent perimeter shots and borderline-swag fast breaks left opposing goalies utterly defenseless in the face of Cal’s attackers.
“It’s not exciting, but we’re not going to change much,” Everist said. “To date, we’ve been fairly successful. We have the people that can make plays. We just have to execute the way we’ve played all year.”