Pac-12 performance bodes well for Bears as NCAAs await

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If the pundits have learned anything from David Durden’s four years at the helm of the Cal men’s swim team, it’s this: Come postseason time, don’t underestimate the Bears.

No. 6 Cal finished second over the weekend at the Pac-12 Championships, but took down two of the nation’s top-five teams in the process. With 808 points, the Bears cruised past No. 1 Arizona and No. 5 USC, overcoming two squads with more individual standouts, but not nearly the depth of Cal.

“For us, it’s about the collective,” Durden said. “It’s not about one, two, three, four athletes that we’re going to focus on and invest in … It takes some humility in guys understanding their role.”

The Bears proved they have a better shot at a repeat national championship than their ranking and starpower would indicate.

Under Durden, Cal has a history of finishing higher than its ranking going into NCAAs. His 2008 squad came into NCAAs ranked 11th, and it finished fourth. The next two teams improved by two spots each, finishing fourth and second, respectively. Even last year’s Cal squad was ranked as low as No. 4 before taking the national title at season’s end.

Still, Stanford was clearly the most polished team at Pac-12s, which is why the No. 3 Cardinal won their 31st straight conference championship.

The Bears, second each year since 2002, didn’t make a serious run at the Cardinal until the final day, when it was too late. After finishing behind the Bears the last two years at NCAAs, Stanford will be gunning for Cal this time around.

“I know we’re going to beat Cal,” Stanford coach Skip Kenney said at the beginning of the season. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

But no team, not even the Cardinal, has yet to see the best of the young Bears squad, which didn’t peak until the final day of the meet. Though Durden was critical of his team’s “emotionally detached” performance early on, Cal outscored Stanford in the meet’s final three swimming events.

“We got better through the meet,” Durden said. “We’re going to carry that momentum over the next two and a half weeks. We’re pretty excited about that.”

Unlike Kenney, Durden downplays his team’s stealthy performance at Pac-12s, despite Cal’s surplus of talented swimmers.

“We’re just quietly doing what needs to be done to compete for a national championship,” Durden said. “And that’s how we’re going to approach it.”