Bears peaking at right time as NCAAs approach

Andrew Kuo/File

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The regular season just didn’t mean that much to the Cal men’s swim team.

Meets, with few exceptions, were nothing more than opportunities to practice in front of a crowd. Training trumped hard-fought competition; expectations for each meet were always tempered. The regular season had the feel of another sport’s preseason. The shining light at the end of the tunnel has always been the season’s final tournament.

The Bears have spent the better part of six months preparing for this weekend’s NCAA Championships, to be held Thursday through Saturday in Seattle, Wash. The endgame — so distant for months of competition — is finally imminent.

“We want to win the national championship,” said Cal coach David Durden. “That’s why we’re here. That has been our plan since way back in September — to swim our fastest meet this weekend, in this venue, with this group of guys.”

Cal’s season has been neither a marathon nor a sprint. It’s been more of a slow jog, paced for the Bears to surpass everyone else with a manic, come-from-behind finish.

Cal’s No. 6 ranking, last updated on Jan. 25, is hardly indicative of the team’s national standing. Since then, Cal has turned in some of its best performances of the season, handily winning a dual meet against No. 5 USC and finishing second at the Pac-12 Championships three weeks ago, ahead of Arizona and No. 1 USC.

Meet after meet, the Bears have slowly been shaving down times. And they’re peaking now.

“I would absolutely agree that we’re peaking at this time,” Durden said. “The guys are in a very good spot.”

Cal will need to turn in its best performance of the season to garner a top-three finish, let alone its second consecutive championship. Texas and Michigan, the respective champions from the Big 12 and Big Ten, will likely pose the greatest threats from squads the Bears haven’t yet faced.

“Texas has a solid team and they’re an experienced team from top to bottom,” Durden said. “And Michigan is seated to perform well at these championships.”

But Cal’s greatest challenge this weekend could come from its neighbor across the Bay. Stanford won its 31st consecutive Pac-12 championship this year, and this year’s squad has the talent to win its first national championship since 1998. The Bears have become very familiar with the Cardinal. This will be the fifth matchup this season between the cross-Bay rivals.

But the past can be a feeble indicator of future results. After an embarrassing loss to No. 1 Arizona in January, the Bears relegated the Wildcats to a distant third place at Pac-12 championships. Cal lost to Stanford twice last year before winning the national championship, leaving the Cardinal behind in the dust.

“It’s hard for me to step back and see where we’ll go,” Durden said. “I feel really good about how our guys are going to compete, and that’s what I’ll hang my hat on.”