Luka and Aleksa Saponjic’s parents flew out from Serbia for a match that will never happen.
The brothers were supposed to play their first and only championship match together as anchors on opposite sides of the offense. But one goal in one game reversed their team’s fate. The Cal men’s water polo team, favorites from opening weekend to avenge last year’s NCAA championship loss, never made it past the second round of conference competition.
The Saponjic brothers’ story is one in a long train of heartbreak for a team that failed to accomplish its only goal. Ivan Rackov said that everyone was sad at the end of the MPSF tournament, but sadness doesn’t quite cut it when describing the team’s reaction. Shock was there, especially on Sunday when the wounds were still fresh. Denial was present, too — a doubt that crept into speeches, as if deep down everyone refused to accept what they said and saw. Disbelief ran rampant over crushed hopes.
Disappointment is the only real way to explain a season cut too short. There is disappointment in their performance, for which an off-day cost them a shot at the national title; disappointment in the worst-case scenario coming to fruition; disappointment in the monumental, unreal circumstances before them.
Six days removed from the upset at the MPSF tournament, the Cal men’s water polo team has haphazardly cycled through the stages of grief with the same rapid speed that propelled it through the season. Grudging acceptance replaced the shock, but the disappointment persisted.
Sometimes a word stops making sense the more someone repeats it; the sounds blur together and the meaning disappears. But “disappointment” cuts through you like a dagger every time a coach or player utters it.
“The only word I can say is disappointed,” senior attacker Cory Nasoff said. “These last two years we were supposed to be the team to win the national championship. If you’re talking about any other collegiate sport, finishing third in the nation is an accomplishment. But for us, anything short of a championship is disappointing.”
“Of course it’s disappointing,” were the first words out of freshman Aleksa Saponjic’s mouth.
“We had goals higher than what we accomplished,” coach Kirk Everist said, “and that’s disappointing.”
There is a gaping chasm between what the team envisioned for itself and what the scoreboard recorded. If ever there was a year the Bears would win it all, this was it; if there was ever a story of redemption, Cal possessed it. There was always a Faustian thirst to trade everything for the national title, always an intense drive through a narrowed tunnel to reach perfection.
This year’s team was one of tremendous fight. The Bears fought tooth and nail throughout the UCLA match to preserve their season and finished the match in possession of the ball. Their dreams died in the midst of a valiant effort, a beautiful struggle.
The season never looked like a struggle for a team consistently at the top, and the fall was fast and hard as Cal rushed to the bottom.
The rest of the water polo world will watch this season culminate in one final weekend of competition at the NCAA Championship. But the season is already over for the Bears; this year has already become next year.
“On any given day, the best team can win,” Nasoff said.
He’s looking ahead to next season. And he’s talking about Cal.