The NCAA water polo system is biased against the MPSF. Home to the top nine teams in the nation, the MPSF has been the powerhouse of water polo, but year after year, MPSF teams suffered from the weight of its own strength in qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
The Cal men’s water polo team was the latest victim to this system.
Last season, No. 1 UCLA won the MPSF conference and No. 2 USC received the at large bid, leaving No. 3 Cal was left out of the final four. In a four-team playoff, the winner of each of the three conferences and an “at-large” bid qualifies to the tournament — No. 10 UCSD and No. 13 Princeton qualified as champions of its respective conferences.
This weekend in the Princeton Invitational, the Bears will begin their season New Jersey with a rare opportunity to see the best teams on the east coast. Over the course of three days, No. 3 Cal will play No. 20 St. Francis and No. 13 Princeton, Bucknell, Harvard and MIT respectively.
The St. Francis and Princeton games will likely be the only competitive games of the tournament, providing the Bears their only look at the two teams most likely to represent the Eastern College Athletic Conference at this year’s NCAA tournament.
“Obviously we’re favored in these match ups,” senior captain Marin Balarin said. “So we just need to keep our heads right so we don’t end up with any unexpected losses.”
Both Princeton and St. Francis (1-1) will be led by strong attackers. Tigers sophomore Drew Hoffenberg was the Tigers’ top scorer as a freshman last year with 47 goals, being named by NCAA as one of ten players to watch this season — the only player from a non-California school named on the list. Terriers senior attacker Marco Gencic was the team MVP in 2010 and was their leading scorer last season.
“I think they are going to give us the biggest challenge this tournament,” Balarin said. “St. Francis is a team with a lot of international players, so that’s going to be an interesting match up too.”
The remaining three games of the weekend are against tune-ups for the Bears before the NorCal tournament next weekend.
After an impressive performance in the Golden Bear invitational, the biggest things that the team needs to work on are clock management and positioning after transitions. Clock management cost the Bears two goals late in quarters in a scrimmage against UC Davis.
“We need to work on when to be aggressive and when not to be aggressive,” Everist said.
Straightening out those problems will be key for the Bears this weekend. With Cal facing teams like No. 1 USC, No. 2 UCLA, and No. 4 Stanford next weekend in the NorCal Invitational, any help it can get now will help them for this year’s postseason hopes.
Warren Laufer covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]