Bears look for postseason peak as Pac-12 Championships begin

The Cal men's swimming team posted a 4-2 record in dual meets in the 2012 season, losing to Stanford and Arizona.
Andrew Kuo/File
The Cal men's swimming team posted a 4-2 record in dual meets in the 2012 season, losing to Stanford and Arizona.

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It’s been a pedestrian season for the Cal men’s swim team this winter. At 4-2, the Bears have soundly defeated their weaker opponents and ceded defeat to the more talented sides. Despite the occasional inspiring events — such as Tom Shields’ comeback in the Big Meet — Cal’s regular season was hardly an exceptional one.

Good thing the Bears save their best for the postseason.

As No. 6 Cal begins its postseason at the Pac-12 Championships Wednesday at 6 p.m. it will be with the renewed focus and intensity of a defending national champion. Though just the fourth-best team in a top-heavy conference, the Bears will have three and a half days in Monterey Park, Calif., to prove they are better than their seed.

“We feel like we’re a team that may be a little undervalued, and that’s OK,” said Cal coach David Durden. “We want to make sure that as we’re going into that setting that we’re ready to race and ready to compete.”

Because of the sheer amount of talent in the Pac-12, the Bears have kept a low profile. Four of the top six teams in the country swim in the conference, and Cal finds itself looking up at three of them. One of those is No. 3 Stanford, which has held a monopoly on the conference championship since 1981. Last year, the Bears came in second to the Cardinal 911-864 but finished ahead at the NCAA Championships.

“Stanford has a tradition of performing really well at this meet,” Durden said. “You know that you’re going to see the best of Stanford.”

If any team has a chance of ending the Cardinal’s streak this year, it’s Arizona. First-year coach Eric Hansen has led the Wildcats (8-0) to a perfect dual meet record, soundly defeating Stanford, No. 2 Texas and four other nationally-ranked squads en route to a No. 1 national ranking. Deep and talented, Arizona has earned its status as the nation’s top team.

But though Arizona and Stanford will duke it out for the most points at the East Los Angeles College Swim Center, Durden expects big things from his squad. Poor performances in Cal’s dual meets against the top two Pac-12 squads were attributable to what he calls “de-training,” a gradual decrease in workload that sacrifices dual meet placement for postseason performance. Some Cal swimmers still need fast times this week to qualify for NCAAs.

The Bears can be assured by their history of improving at the right time. Durden pointed to all the seniors, specifically Robbie Sullivan — who decreased his time in the 200 fly by more than six seconds over the course of last season — as an example of how the team’s performance jumps in the postseason. Sullivan is Durden’s philosophy at work: the regular season may not always be pretty, but the proof is in the pudding come postseason.

“This is the time to turn it up,” Durden said. “Lights on, giddy up, and let’s go.”