Despite 1 loss, Cal women’s water polo shines at Santa Barbara Invitational

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Rachael Garner/File

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The No. 4 Cal women’s water polo team entered the Santa Barbara Invitational tournament this weekend undefeated, at 4-0. They left with one loss on their record. The Bears (7-1) split their two games Friday, first falling to No. 7 Hawaii, 10-9, and then winning against No. 13 UC Santa Barbara 9-8 in overtime. On Saturday, however, Cal was able to handily defeat No. 17 Long Beach State and CSU Bakersfield, 8-3 and 14-3 respectively.

Cal led 2-0 after the first quarter against Hawaii, behind goals from freshman driver Sarah Siepker and junior center Emily Loughlin. Both teams put three goals away in the second period and the Bears held a 5-3 lead entering the half, but it was clear that Hawaii made the more effective halftime adjustment because the Rainbow Wahine scored five goals in the third quarter, including the first two of the quarter to tie the game. Despite Cal taking a 7-5 lead, Hawaii responded with three straight to end the quarter up 8-7. The Bears took the lead again in the fourth quarter with the first two goals of the period, but they couldn’t hold back the Wahine, who tied the game at 9-9 with 4:58 remaining and then scored the game winner with just over a minute to play.

Coming off their first loss of the season, the Bears were eager to rebound against UCSB. Both teams played neck and neck throughout the game, trading goals back-and-forth, and neither team held greater than a one-goal lead.

The Gauchos led by one goal seven times, but each time, Cal managed to tie the game. The Bears got the winning goal from senior driver Pippa Saunders, her second of the game, with 1:31 remaining in the second overtime. Sophomore driver Carla Carrega led the Bears with three goals. Carrega now has a team-high 18 goals through eight games, a marked improvement from last season.

“Last season, she didn’t get that much of a chance to step up because we had three really solid leading scorers, but now, we are really all contributing and all sharing the ball, and I really think it is great for (Carrega). She is an awesome shooter,” Loughlin said.

It was clear from the Bears’ performances Friday that they needed to emphasize defensive effort entering Saturday’s matches. After allowing an average of five goals per game in four games the weekend before, the Bears’ 17 goals allowed in two games to open the weekend clearly exposed an area needing improvement. Cal responded well Saturday, holding both opponents to three goals.

“We had some great plays by our goalies as well as our team defense. We were great at communicating, and it was a total change from the Hawaii game. I think it was good that we experienced that loss just so we can learn from our mistakes, and we definitely did that the second day,” Loughlin said. “We played some good teams, and the fact that we held them to three goals was great for us, just to know that we could do that.”

Against Long Beach, Loughlin opened the scoring and the Bears were tied with the 49ers 1-1 after the first quarter. In the second, Loughlin added two more in addition to two from Carrega to blow open the game, 5-1, by halftime, en route to an 8-3 victory.

In the Bears’ second game Saturday against Bakersfield, the two teams’ second matchup in as many weeks, Cal allowed three goals in the first half, but held the Roadrunners scoreless in the second. Senior center Sierra Smiley contributed four more goals to lead the Bears against the Roadrunners, and Saunders and Loughlin added two. Three additional goals from Carrega lead the Bears to  finish the weekend with a second easy victory.

Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].