There is perhaps no more bittersweet a victory than the one the Cal men’s water polo team had when it defeated Pepperdine 14-7 in Long Beach on Sunday.
As a positive, the victory secured the team fifth place in the weekend-long Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament. On the much more negative side of things, Cal needed a top-three finish in the conference tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA tournament at the end of the year. This effectively means the water polo season is over for Cal (22-7, 4-4 MPSF).
The Cal men started the tournament with a 9-6 loss to Long Beach State. This loss ensured the Bears could finish no better than fifth in the tournament, eliminating them from NCAA tournament contention.
The Bears managed to get a 5-4 lead late in the third quarter against the No. 4 49ers but were outscored 5-1 for the rest of the game. This came despite a strong performance from senior Aleksa Saponjic, who scored three goals. Cal was able to score a few goals and use solid goalkeeping by Jon Sibley to keep themselves in the game but lost because the team couldn’t really do much of what it likes to do.
The ideal game for Cal involves forcing turnovers or bad shots by the opposing team to trigger the transition when the Bears can utilize their speed and strength to beat the scrambling opposition to the goal. Long Beach State did not let the Bears do this, as Cal was only able to get off 23 shots. The Bears inability to perform cost them dearly.
The NCAA tournament for water polo consists of six teams and only allows a maximum of three teams in from any one conference. This is unfortunate for the MPSF, as it is the preeminent conference in men’s water polo, with the top-seven teams in the country all being in the conference. This inevitably leads to highly qualified teams being unable to make the tournament
Cal did well to bounce back off of this disappointment and play well for their seniors, salvaging fifth place. They came off of the loss to defeat No. 12 UCSB, 11-9, the next day. The result of the game was never really in doubt, as Cal built a two-goal lead in the second quarter and never really relinquished it. Farrel South led Cal with four goals in an exceptional game.
Cal came back the next day to crush No. 10 Pepperdine 14-7 and clinch that fifth place. This game was an example of how good the Bears look when they can play the way they want to.
They were able to force turnovers and repeatedly get out in transition. When they did, they converted with efficiency and blew Pepperdine out of the water. Despite the fact that the result of the game will ultimately not matter, the Bears played hard for their seniors’ last game and showed the immense potential this team has now and this can be a good segue for the team into an improved 2015 season.
Hooman Yazdanian covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].