“We played UCLA in the summer a lot,” said fifth-year senior Mason Cox. “They have a totally different team than they did last year. They’re going to be good games, but we’re not worried.”
Cox has witnessed the ups and downs of Cal men’s water polo over the past five years. The Bears teams that won back-to-back NCAA championships in the two years before Cox came to Cal have failed to win another title since he arrived in 2008. Over Cox’s four years at Cal, the team’s best finish was a disappointing second place in 2010 against USC with a 12-10 overtime loss in the final.
USC has won the past four championships, meaning no Cal player — or any other squad, for that matter — has seen another team win a national title during their collegiate career. At the start of his last season, Cox thinks that the team is ready to reclaim the glory that originally attracted him to Cal. The deep line-up has been bolstered by players stepping up to fill the void left by 13 players leaving after last season.
Ivan Rackov, the 2012 Cutino Award finalist and 2011 winner as the best collegiate water polo player, will be the biggest loss for the Bears. His loss also opens a door for other players to fill the gaps. In the past, head coach Kirk Everest centered the team around Rackov, especially when the team failed to meet high expectations.
The loss of Rackov will require other players to step up and display the depth that the bench has to offer.
The team’s talent in years past centered around the starting line up. Without the star power of Rackov to attract attention from opposing defenses, the Bears must rely on their depth deep into games to win against strong teams.
“Depth is the biggest strength,” Balarin said. “We’ve been training extremely hard all summer. I think the fact that we have a second line-up right of the bench is going to help a lot.”
Despite the depth that has developed for the Bears since last season, the lack of experience in big games could hurt the team’s chances.
“Experience is going to be our biggest problem this year,” said Balarin. “We lost guys that got a lot of playing time. But at the same time, there are guys that are eager to step up and take their places.”
If the Bears can take advantage of their own depth, the biggest games of the season will likely be against the same teams that provided the best competition last year. USC, UCLA, and Stanford — which all finished last season ranked first, second, and fourth respectively — will undoubtedly provide for some of the most exciting games of the season in both MPSF and tournament matches throughout the season.
The excitement would be welcome — as long as the disappointment doesn’t surface this year.
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