With only two more matches on the schedule before the MPSF tournament, Cal men’s water polo is approaching the end of the 2014 season. But as evidenced by the Bears’ 12-10 loss against then-No. 5 Long Beach State, the team still needs more time to figure out how to be the dominant team it’s capable of being.
By the time the MPSF tournament rolls around, there will be no more chances for mistakes. If Cal (20-4, 4-2 MPSF) slips up and fails to finish in the top three in the MPSF rankings, the team’s hope of competing in and winning the NCAA championships will be over. The only remaining teams left for the Bears to face before the MPSF tournament are Stanford and USC.
In the next two weeks, it is imperative that Cal reassert its identity of shutting down teams on defense and dominating the break. On Saturday morning, Cal will look to get things back on track when the Bears continue their homestand against visiting No. 2 Stanford in the annual Big Splash at 10:30 a.m.
Despite the Cardinal’s higher ranking, there is not a huge disparity when it comes to the talent on each team’s roster. For the Bears against any team, the key factor comes down to who controls the tempo. On Saturday, if Cal can execute and do what it does best by pushing the ball and playing uptempo water polo, there should be no reason for the Bears not to pull off what would technically be an upset.
But this match can go either way. These two teams have played each other twice already and split their games. The first time they went up against each other in the Kap7 tournament, a shutout in the second quarter lifted Stanford to a lead it would hold on to for an 11-8 win. In their second matchup, the two teams traveled down state for the SoCal tournament. But in this one, Cal ran circles around Stanford, most notably in the second quarter when the Cardinal was outscored 4-1 for a comfortable 11-7 win.
In these two meetings, whoever won the second quarter ended up taking a lead and eventually won. The decisive element of this weekend’s Big Splash might not necessarily be determined by the second quarter, but in both games this season, the second quarter was a brief moment when each team found a way to play at its preferred speed and temporarily enjoy a short run to develop a cushion of two to three goals.
In order for Cal to be successful against Stanford, it has to start on the defensive side of the pool, especially when the Cardinal finds itself in powerplay six-on-five opportunities. When the Bears are called on exclusions and are short one player on defense, it will be crucial to defend the goal and contain Stanford’s offense.
When a team scores on Cal, it means much more than simply one goal. If a team is scoring successfully and often against the Bears, that stops the clock and allows the opposing team to set up its defense and prevent Cal from running its trademark fastbreak. This hurts, especially when the Bears are trailing. If Cal is forced to run half-court offense often, it will eat up time quickly and limit the total the team’s overall amount of opportunities.
Saturday will be very simple. If the Bears can defend the goal and prevent Stanford from running efficient offense, they’ll be in a great position to win. But if Cal struggles and allows the opposing offense to have a field day — and this has happened multiple times already this season — the Bears could be in trouble.
Richard Lee covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].