The Cal men’s water polo team didn’t know that its last practice would actually be its last practice.
One week ago, the team took to the Spieker Aquatics pool for final drills before flying to Los Angeles for the MPSF tournament. The players knew that they’d be back to train the day after the MPSF final with a bid to the NCAA Championship. They still had one last week of practice before they accomplished their greatest goal of the season: winning the national title.
The team controlled its own destiny throughout the season. Wins occurred not because the team got lucky breaks but because of its relentless drive and deep talent. Yet in the MPSP semifinal, Cal surrendered its fate to UCLA and cut short its own season.
A sepulchral silence clung to the pool deck all week, a constant reminder of the disconnect between expectation and reality. The stillness of the pool was far more crushing than the loudest crowd because there was a constant awareness of what will soon take its place.
This weekend the Spieker Aquatics Center will host the NCAA Championship. Three schools will attempt to dethrone a fourth from its burgeoning dynasty.
Yet Cal isn’t one of those schools. After working single-mindedly toward the national competition for the past year, the Bears won’t be a part of it. If they even attend, they’ll be spectators who pay their way in; they’ll sit on the bleachers and watch another school win what could have been theirs.
“I’m kind of heartbroken,” 2010 National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov said. “It’s hard to live two blocks from the pool. I can’t imagine hearing the crowd cheer and know it’s not for us.”
At the onset of the season, the Bears were picked alongside reigning national champ USC to finish first in the conference. The Trojans stole a third consecutive NCAA victory in double overtime at the Spieker Aquatics Center last December. Cal was their opponent.
The Bears had all year to linger on that loss.
“We want (the national title) more than the rest of the teams — I mean, I know I do,” senior utility Zach Greenwood said prior to the conference tournament.
To avenge last year’s defeat, the team developed an insatiable need to rack up as many wins as possible in the regular season; that way, if Cal didn’t win the MPSF title, its record would yield an at-large bid to the four-team national tournament. Matches blurred together as Cal’s powerful defense silenced opposing attacks. The season boiled down to a waiting game, one in which the team peaked at the end.
The Bears entered the MPSF competition with “cautious optimism,” according to coach Kirk Everist. They needed two wins and an appearance against USC in the final in order to nab the berth.
But disaster drowned their hopes. On the second day of the tournament the Bruins lethally jumped on the Bears; Cal clawed its way to a tie at the end of regulation, but UCLA scored the winning goal in extra minutes.
“We lost because of ourselves, not because (the Bruins) played their best game,” Rackov said. “There were so many missed opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on. That’s what hurts the most.”
It was the worst case scenario. The team that always craved control had to watch from the sidelines the following day as UCLA upset USC in the conference final. Apprehension turned to horror as the at-large bid slipped away. Its destiny faded back into a dream.
“Everyone wanted the championship, everyone was willing to sacrifice what was necessary,” senior attacker Cory Nasoff said. “We were all so committed, we had so much heart. Sometimes, instead of playing the game, we got caught up in emotions. We let them get the best of us and lost sight of the game.”