With its pride on the line, Cal men’s water polo team made sure the Steve Heaston Trophy stayed at home.
The No. 7 Bears crushed the No. 4 Cardinal, 14-8, at the Spieker Aquatics Complex. The win was Cal’s first conference victory of the season and gave the squad the Steve Heaston Trophy, which goes to the winner of the Big Splash, for a second consecutive year.
Early on, the game looked to be a repeat of the Cal-Stanford matchup in NorCal Invitational in midSeptember. In that game, the Bears (10-6, 1-2) found themselves in an 8-3 deficit after the first half, only to lose in a heartbreaking 9-8 loss.
Stanford (8-4, 2-2) opened the scoreboard with a five-meter penalty shot by sophomore Alex Bowen two minutes into the game. Cal equalized shortly after off a goal from Matt Russell; but two more strikes from the Cardinal placed the visitor ahead 3-1 after only six minutes of play.
“They hit quite a few good shots early on and we got too many fouls and turnovers,” senior captain Marin Balarin said. “So we just got together during the timeout and said let’s get our heads on and get back in this”.
With that timeout, the Cardinal would have the last fun of the day.
After Bowen and Giacomo Cupido traded goals, the first period came to a close with Stanford narrowly leading, 4-3.
The Bears then dominated the second quarter, led by a shutout defensive effort. Goalkeeper Jon Sibley was a brick wall in front of the net en route to his eight saves, and the Bears utilized the counter-attack effectively.
Spreading the ball allowed four separate Cal players, including attacker Aleksa Saponjic, to score and brought the halftime score to 7-4 for the Bears.
“We played focused and with energy on defense,” junior Collin Smith said. “Like Aleksa said (earlier in the week), our best offense is our defense.”
Smith himself was a huge beneficiary of the team’s improved effort. The Cal’s leading scorer this season notched a game-high six goals on Saturday.
Heading into the third quarter, the Bears did not relent. Another goal by Smith capped a 5-0 run and left Stanford in a 8-4 ditch.
A concerted Cardinal effort, though, closed the deficit to 8-6 within the third quarter. With plenty of time left, a comeback was certainly not out of the question.
Earlier in the season, the Bears had dropped games against top squads No. 1 USC and then No. 2 UCLA after leading late in the game.
But the Big Splash would be no Big Flop.
“As opposed to the USC and UCLA game where we tried to protect the lead,” Balarin said. “We treated every quarter, minute, and shot like it was 0-0. We just came out and attacked no matter what the situation was.”
The Bears stuck to their firm defense for the rest of the game, only allowing two more goals. Balarin and Smith scored two and three more goals, respectively, in the second half to steal the game at 14-8.
By the end of the game, the Bears had both the Steve Heaston trophy in hand and, perhaps more importantly, a new level of confidence.
“It’s a huge building block for our team’s confidence,” Smith said. “This win just gives us the mentality to keep progressing.”
Vincent Tzeng covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]
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