Within the week, the Bears lost two matches and five players. But with a game against No. 1 USC coming up, Cal’s men’s water polo might be saving the worst for the weekend.
The No. 4 Bears are traveling to USC’s McDonald’s Swim Stadium on Sunday at 1 p.m. to face the four-time defending NCAA Champions — and they have a lot of baggage to bring along.
Most troubling is the recent removal of five players for violating the team’s code of conduct policy. Head coach Kirk Everist did not specify what the violations were for, but the five did not play in the NorCal Invitational Sept. 15-16 in Stanford.
The Bears’ biggest loss in this situation was starting goalie and team captain Justin Parsons. The senior second-team All-American contributed 206 saves last year in 23 matches and was named Co-MVP of the team.
Now, junior Michael Boggan, who notched 39 saves at the Invite, will be have to fill in for Parsons, starting with this weekend’s season opener.
Since four of the five removed players were attackers, the team also now finds itself even more lacking in offense. In addition, prolific scorers Ivan Rackov and Luka Saponjic graduated in the spring, along with five other senior attackers.
One dismissed attacker, sophomore Max Bergeson, was to figure heavily in the Bears’ offense after redshirting last year. His 2010 freshman campaign included highlights like two goals in a crucial game against Loyola Marymount in the NCAA semi-finals.
The effects of these players’ absence have already been noted last week at the NorCal Invitational. The Bears entered the tournament as the No. 3 team and easily reached the semifinals. Then, they disappointingly lost 11-10 in OT to UCLA, then dropped the third-place match to now No. 3 Stanford, 9-8.
Despite the losses in and out of the pool, the Bears are determined to stay positive.
“Morale is actually pretty high,” senior captain Marin Balarin said. “We showed (at the tournament) we could still fight and compete with everyone with the same heart and fire.”
Balarin’s confidence will have to translate into performance if the team hopes to stay in the hunt for the national title.
The Trojans have led the nation with a balanced and powerful offense and defense. In front of that USC offense is junior Nikola Vavic, who dominated the tournament last week with 12 goals. The two-time All-American garnered the MPSF Player of the Week and already has racked up 26 goals this season.
In the cage, the Trojans have James Clark, an Australian transfer who has big shoes to fill in replacing Joel Dennerley. The 2011-2012 Peter J. Cutino Award winner and two-time MPSF Player of the Year was USC’s all-time leader in saves, with 855. Both Clark and Dennerley also helped Australia reach a seventh-place finish in the 2012 London Olympics.
The Bears will attack Clark with an accomplished set of All-Americans and their own Olympian, Aleksa Saponjic. The sophomore standout helped Serbia take a bronze medal in London and contributed 11 goals over the past weekend.
Junior attacker Collin Smith also poses a threat as the Cal’s leader in scoring, assists, steals , and field blocks. Last week’s MPSF Player of the Week conquered opponents in the Princeton Invitational and brought 10 goals in the latest tournament.
But despite doing nearly everything for the Bears, Smith acknowledges the Bears will have to do more to beat the top team, especially after losing those five players.
“It’s frustrating but it gives us something to work for,” Smith said. “So if it takes a little more work from each of us, then that’s what we’ll have to do.”
Vincent Tzeng covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]
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