Relays only bright spots as Bears fall in Big Meet

200 medley relay backstroke starter, Marcin Tarczynski
Andrew Kuo/Staff
Senior Mathias Gydesen placed second in Saturday's 200 yard backstroke, falling behind the Cardinal's Matt Thompson. Gydesen also swam the backstroke in the 400 medley relay, which Cal narrowly stole from Stanford.

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STANFORD, Calif. — The Big Meet ended as it began: full-throated whistles punctuating the electric air, a spirited anchor leg from a charging challenger, a raucous crowd’s crescendo as two competing hands reached for final wall in sync. For three minutes each, two relays befit the Cal-Stanford rivalry at its best.

Unfortunately for the No. 6 Cal men’s swim team, the events in between on Saturday couldn’t match the excitement of the relays, and the Bears fell to No. 3 Stanford in their regular season finale, 146.5-96.5.

“We wanted to win,” said junior Tom Shields. “I mean, a score’s a score. It doesn’t matter too much to us at this point. But we really, really, really wanted to win.”

From the opening 400 medley relay, a bipartisan crowd at Avery Aquatics Center made its presence known. Cal led by more than a second and a half going into the final 100, largely due to Shields’ performance on the third leg. But as Stanford senior Aaron Wayne closed in on Cal freshman Tyler Messerschmidt, the Cardinal fans came alive. Amid competing factions of fervent fans, Messerschmidt touched the wall just 0.14 seconds ahead of Wayne for his team’s first win of the day.

“We’re just trying to figure out where our relays are at right now,” said Cal coach David Durden. “So the first one was good.”

Stanford (7-1) won five of the next six events, and it soon became clear the Cardinal had too much talent for the Bears. All-Americans Chad La Tourette and Bobby Bollier took three of those events on their Senior Day, and freshman David Nolan nearly set a pool record in the 200 IM. Going into the day’s final event, the Bears had won just three of the 11 individual events.

But the last event of the day was the best.

Stanford led the 400 free relay by more than a second as Shields jumped in the water for the anchor leg. The junior used his powerful underwater swimming to close slowly on Stanford junior Andrew Saeta. Shields surfaced on the final length nearly two-thirds of the way down the pool, just behind his counterpart. Shields caught up, and the two appeared to touch the wall simultaneously.

But as the results were flashed on the scoreboard, Cal fans let out a collective groan. Stanford had won the day’s final event by just one-hundredth of a second. The loss capped a disappointing day for the Bears.

“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we don’t,” Shields said. “This time we didn’t, and that’s a bummer. But it’s the Big Meet. Not Pac-12s. Not NCAAs.”

For now, the Bears (4-2) will take solace in the fact that they will face Stanford twice more before the season is over.

“Hopefully these guys realize they’ve got another chance, another two chances to see those athletes again, to step up and race those athletes again,” Durden said. “To know that their time — our time — is coming at the Pac-12s and NCAAs.”