No. 7 Cal women’s water polo prepares for Big Splash against No. 3 Stanford

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Phillip Downey/File

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Just in time for what most would call the biggest game of the season, the Cal women’s water polo team suffered one of the most emotionally brutal defeats in water polo. The Bears lost on the road last week to No. 5 Arizona State in the second sudden death overtime period. On Saturday, No. 7 Cal will head across the bay to the home of its rival, No. 3 Stanford, for this year’s edition of “The Big Splash.”

The loss to ASU significantly diminished the Bears’ NCAA qualification hopes, as that would have helped secure them a valuable top-four conference finish and a likely NCAA tournament berth. But fans of the Bears (19-6, 1-2 MPSF) shouldn’t be worried yet, for this weekend’s matchup will provide an even better determination of postseason fate. A win for the Bears would put them right back in contention with the best in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

With this sentiment in mind, the Bears are certainly keeping a positive approach despite having lost in two consecutive weeks ─ to ASU and to No. 2 UCLA the prior week. From the moment they left their deflating loss in Arizona, head coach Richard Corso has been mentally preparing his team for this week’s battle.

“We told them, ‘We got to leave this here. We have to leave it, flush it and come back to practice and get ready for Stanford,’ ” Corso said.

And while some critics may contend that Cal’s form this season has been questionable, it must not be forgotten that the Bears were arguably the hottest team in the nation in early February when they defeated the Cardinal ─ then ranked first ─ at the Stanford Invitational. That victory was Cal’s second straight win against Stanford after 41 consecutive losses dating back to 2001.

After winning the Stanford Invitational, however, the Bears were hampered by injuries to some crucial players, namely left-handed senior center Brooke Vowell and starting 2-meter defender, sophomore Kindred Paul. Corso was actually pleased with his team’s play in the loss to UCLA, and with the return of Vowell and Paul, he is confident that the Bears will put forth a powerful performance this weekend, rivalry motivation aside.

“This sounds crazy, but with the UCLA loss, even ASU, we’re right there. We don’t like to say they’re good losses, but we came away with some real positive things that we did. UCLA is ranked two right now and they threw everything they had at us. So we’re right there,” Corso said. “I think this is the best we’ve looked since just before the Stanford tournament. Are we at the same level we were at the Stanford tournament? Almost ─ we’re going to find out.”

When the Bears defeated their rivals 5-2 in February, their press held the Cardinal to their lowest single-game scoring output in 11 years. That game also featured Cal’s lowest offensive output in a win. This weekend, the emphasis on defense should be no different. Both teams will be expected to press early and often. If the Bears can bring back the defense that was working so well earlier in the season, they certainly have a chance at defeating their rivals and salvaging their postseason hopes.

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