Luca Cupido stars in US men’s water polo run to gold medal at Pan American Games

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John Polzer/Courtesy

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By the end of the U.S. men’s water polo team’s run to first place at the 2015 Pan American Games, Cal rising sophomore Luca Cupido proved that his many believers, who have created so much hype around him, are believing in anything but fool’s gold, as he shot himself into the conversation as one of the world’s premier scoring threats.

Cupido served as one of Team USA’s main leaders on its gold medal run, which capped off its tournament with a 11-9 win over Brazil on Wednesday. Cupido tied for the team lead in the game with three goals and played an amazing game for someone of his youth. But the match didn’t go down as Cupido’s best of the tournament, even if it came at the highest stakes. In the game against Ecuador, which turned into a 27-0 demolition by the United States, Cupido had five goals and four steals in what became his best statistical contribution of the tournament.

Cupido’s most important game, however, may have proven to be Team USA’s semifinal fixture against Canada. The United States pulled out a 9-8 win, and Cupido’s goal, with less than two minutes left, was the clincher that helped stave off a late Canadian rally. That was his last of three goals in the game, and his other two were also crucial to putting the United States on top. Cupido started off the bout’s scoring with a goal early in the first quarter, and his second goal helped push his team out of a 4-4 tie in the third quarter. More importantly, Cupido’s goals helped his team clinch a victory that also guaranteed the Americans a spot in the 2016 Summer Olympics, reserved for the top two teams in the tournament.

But a mere top-two spot was not going to be enough for Cupido and his teammates, and they showed that by refusing to let up against a very strong Brazilian team that had breezed through the tournament up until that point — including a blow out of Argentina in the semifinals. Instead, the Americans played some of their best water polo of the whole tournament, especially when taking into account the tougher competition. Once again, Cupido scored less than two minutes into the game, this time on a power play, and set a tone for the efficiency with which the U.S. offensive machine, which led the tournament with 82 goals, was going to play. The team scored on an impressive nine of their 14 power-play opportunities, and that was too much for Brazil to overcome.

Cupido wasn’t the only player on the team who was a familiar face for Cal fans. The team also featured John Mann, a former Bear who last played for Cal in 2006. Mann is one of the most accomplished players in the program’s history, and on the strength of 80 goals, he led the Bears to an NCAA Championship in his final season.

The rising sophomore will hope to replicate Mann’s Cal success, and his strong run at the Pan American Games is a harbinger of good things to come for the Bears this season. He scored 42 goals as a freshman, with an average of 1.75 goals per game. Meanwhile, he put up 3.2 goals per game on the stacked Team USA roster in Canada, which indicates that he has the potential to break out even more. And if he does develop into an even better player, Cal’s opponents may not be ready for what’s going to hit them.

Hooman Yazdanian is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian.