The No. 4 Cal women’s water polo team is in dangerous waters.
The Bears are seeded fifth in this weekend’s MPSF tournament, but only the winner earns the conference’s automatic bid. This year’s NCAA tournament field will only have two at-large bids, meaning Cal will have to win the conference tournament — held from Friday through Sunday — to be assured of an NCAA berth.
The odds do not favor the Bears’ season extending past this weekend.
When the ball hits the water at 4 p.m. on Friday at Avery Aquatics Center in Stanford, Calif., Cal (17-7, 4-3 in the MPSF) will swim out against fourth-seeded Arizona State with its season hanging in the balance.
“(The MPSF Tournament) is always nerve-racking,” said junior Dana Ochsner. “Yeah, you play these teams during the regular season, but this is the big tournament.”
The Bears have twice faced the Sun Devils (23-5, 4-3), a team that holds a higher seed in the MPSF tournament despite a No. 5 national ranking. In the first meeting between the two schools on Feb. 25, the Bears won 8-5. However, the Bears lost to the Sun Devils 10-7 two weeks later in Tempe, Ariz.
Whether or not playing at a neutral location will make a difference, the Bears’ focus remains on stopping the top scorer in the MPSF, senior Alicia Brightwell.
“We have let her score in the past but we are making it an emphasis to knock her down,” said sophomore Ashley Young.
The 22-year old Aussie has proven herself against the Bears, netting three goals in each game. Although Cal does not think it is necessary to send multiple double-teams her way, the players will be well aware of her presence in the water. Shutting down Brightwell may be the key to slowing down a Sun Devil attack that ranks second in the MPSF in goals per game, with 12.32.
In both ASU games, the Bears’ slow starts stood out. In the loss, the Bears trailed 4-1 after one quarter and couldn’t dig themselves out of the hole. Even in the win the squad faced a 4-3 deficit after the first eight minutes.
Although Cal has offensive weapons such as Young and junior Breda Vosters, the team usually doesn’t come alive until the second quarter.
“We need to come out with full-throttle adrenaline and just play to battle,” Young said.
In such a high-pressure game with the season on the line, falling behind could be devastating for Cal. With only three seniors, the Bears are a young team that may panic if they fall behind.
“No matter the situation, we can’t break down,” Ochsner said. “If we go down by a goal or two, we can’t let that defeat us.”
If Cal beats the Sun Devils, it will face the winner of top-seeded Stanford and eight-seeded Hawaii on Saturday. Although the Bears must overcome tough obstacles to win the tournament, Cal believes it still has one thing over its opponents.
“We have the most desire,” Ochsner said. “We know we have to win, and we go in wanting it more than anybody else.”