The Cal men’s water polo team could have been playing next weekend in the NCAA Championships.
As it is, the Bears’ season ended Sunday after a 9-5 loss to No. 1 USC in the finals of the MPSF tournament. With the conference crown, the Trojans nabbed an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and No.2 UCLA took the at-large bid.
But the fact that Bears (17-8, 5-3 MPSF) came so close to the national championship speaks to the dedication of the team.
From the start of the season, little went the Bears’ way. After six seniors graduated last season, experience and depth were already concerns for Cal.
Then two weeks into the season, head coach Kirk Everist was forced to remove five players — including starting goalkeeper Justin Parsons — from the team for code of conduct violations.
The Bears struggled with ups and downs that eventually saw them with the No. 3 ranking in the MPSF — and the No. 4 ranking in the nation — heading into this weekend’s MPSF tournament.
First up in the conference championship was a first-round matchup Friday evening with No. 7 Pepperdine at USC’s McDonald’s Swim Stadium.
But after Collin Smith scored in the fourth quarter, emotions took over.
A scrum resulted in Smith and Hunter Gettelfinger being removed from the game for flagrant fouls.
The Waves protested the game because they believed Cal’s second-leading scorer, Aleksa Saponjic, should have been ejected instead of Gettelfinger. Two hours after the final whistle, the teams replayed the last 50 seconds of the game.
Yet Cal held the 11-9 lead and won its first game.
Even without their top scorers, the Bears cruised past No. 2 UCLA, 12-9, in the semifinal on Saturday afternoon. The Bruins defeated the Bears in two prior meetings, including a conference match on Oct. 6 that ended in sudden-death double overtime.
“Its about the team,” Smith said after Saturday’s win. “It’s not about two players. They have just as much chemistry with us in or out of the pool. We just have to be their biggest fans now and cheer them on until the last possible second.”
That last second ticked down on Sunday afternoon, as the Bears were unable to ruin the Trojans’ perfect season.
After USC jumped out to an early 2-0 lead, senior captain Marin Balarin scored with 53 seconds left in the first quarter to cut the lead in half. The Trojans added one more in the second quarter while the Bears’ attackers were silent.
The biggest blow came in the third quarter, when the Trojans scored twice to make the score 6-1.
The Bears went on a scoring run of their own to bring the score to 7-5 after the third quarter, but USC’s offensive onslaught gave the Trojans the victory, the MPSF title and an automatic bid for next week’s NCAA tournament.
The Bears had little to be ashamed of after battling through problem after problem this season.
“It’s been a challenging year on a number of fronts,” Everist said. “They’re young kids, but they’ve handled everything well.
“Their support of me and what they fought through and battling through everything — I’m proud of this team. They’re resilient, and they never quit.”