It was supposed to be a close game.
Heading into Saturday’s match against No. 4 Stanford in Stanford, Calif., the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team predicted a one-goal margin decided late in the game. After all, that was how the previous two matchups between the rivals ended: in September the Bears topped the Cardinal, 8-7, only to have Stanford avenge that loss two weeks later in overtime.
“All the guys realized there are three weeks left in the season,” freshman Aleksa Saponjic said. “We got to do our best. We all realize we are a national championship team this year. Now is the time to show that.”
Past performances led Cal (20-3, 7-1) to believe that a victory, should it even happen, would come hard-fought and down to the wire. But a stifling defense propelled the Bears to an 11-4 landslide in their last conference match of the season.
Capitalizing on the game’s first man-up advantage, Stanford’s Forrest Watkins scored off a rebound within the first two minutes of the game. Stanford (18-5, 5-3) took two more quick shots on goalie Justin Parsons before Cal’s offense even reached the two-meter zone at the other end of the pool.
It looked like those predictions were well-founded.
But then Saponjic responded with a goal. And another one. Suddenly Cal was on a seven-goal tear that utterly halted its opponent. Stanford didn’t see another point until the end of the first half.
“I’ve seen five, six, seven point leads evaporate pretty quickly,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said. “Until you get midway through the fourth quarter, it’s pretty hard to let that slip and get comfortable.”
Unlike Cal’s lower-level opponents of the last month, Stanford is a definite threat. Bragging rights and the Heaston trophy weren’t the only things up for grabs in the Big Splash; a top-two seed in next weekend’s MPSF tournament was also on the line.
But Stanford didn’t come to play. For the majority of the game they were bystanders as Cal completely exploited their lackluster performance. Stanford oftentimes had the edge, as they were handed a high number of offensive fouls and man-up opportunities. But any rhythm the team built up was quickly stifled. By the third quarter the Bears killed five straight power plays, and Stanford sputtered in the face of Cal’s constant mobility and action. Cardinal drives to the inside hole were cut short by field blocks from the defenders and steals from Parsons.
“The whole four quarters, they had no response for our defense,” Saponjic said.
The lethal counterattacks gave the Bears an edge in transitions. Senior co-captain Ivan Rackov found himself on the receiving end of three different fast breaks throughout the game. Senior attacker Luka Saponjic opened up the second quarter with a long shot from the perimeter. With a look of surprise and satisfaction Saponjic watched as the ball sailed into the back of the net and gave his team a 5-1 lead.
“I was expecting a closer game,” Rackov said. “I thought we would struggle a little bit more. I expected them to give us a little bit of trouble. I don’t know what happened to Stanford.”