Bears to face first test of season

It has been more than 47 days since the Cal men’s swimming team last competed. But when the Bears hit the pool at Spieker Aquatics Center this weekend, it will be for their last two home meets of the season. In No. 1 Arizona, the Bears will face their greatest test to date.

As No. 6 Cal takes on Arizona and Arizona State for senior weekend, the competition will be not only challenging but also emotional. Friday’s 1 p.m. meet pits the Bears — last year’s NCAA champions — against the now top-ranked Wildcats.

“It’ll probably be the most full for a home meet that we can get this year,” junior Tom Shields said.

In four months of competition, the Bears (2-0) have swum just two dual meets, easily winning each one. Although Cal has faced top-10 schools such as Stanford, Georgia, Auburn and Indiana in tournaments, this will be its first dual meet against a ranked opponent.

“(Arizona is) a very, very good team,” Cal coach David Durden said. “They have a mix of some good youth, some good experience and some good transfer students.”

Arizona coach Eric Hansen couldn’t have asked for much more in his first year at the helm of the Wildcats. After finishing fourth at last year’s NCAA championships, Arizona (4-0) seems poised for another strong postseason run. Led by 11-time All-American senior Cory Chitwood, the Wildcats have yet to lose a dual meet on the season. Five swimmers — at least one from each class — have recorded the nation’s top times in six events. In Durden’s four years at Cal, the Bears have defeated the Wildcats just once.

But with the Pac-12 and NCAA Championships still to come, the Bears remain more motivated by themselves than by their competition.

“With an Arizona team being ranked No. 1, I don’t think it necessarily provides any extra motivation than we already have,” Durden said. “I think it’s just more excitement to race.”

Saturday’s 12 p.m. meet against unranked Arizona State — the final home meet of the year — will be the more emotional day for Durden and his players. This year’s group of seniors, Durden’s first recruiting class at Cal, was unheralded at the time. But after three years with top-four finishes at NCAAs —  including last year’s national championship — the seniors’ success is reflective of the impact Durden has made on the program in his four and a half years at the helm.

“A lot of these guys took a chance on someone like myself,” Durden said. “It’s special to me to see that in a very, very short amount of time they understood that they knew what we wanted to do as a program and they wanted to be a part of it … It’s very, very special for me to see these guys have their last home meet here.”

Shields is excited for the Bears’ first scheduled competition in a month and a half.

“It’s been a long time,” junior Tom Shields said. “They’ve kind of been keeping us in the cage, and I’m just really excited to go out and race.”

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