No. 6 Cal water polo faces must-win situation in MPSF Championship

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Phillip Downey/File

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Just more than a year ago, the Cal women’s water polo team pulled off one of its most historic wins of all time at the MPSF Tournament: a semifinal victory against Stanford. The win was the Bears’ first over the Cardinal in all competitions in 15 years and essentially guaranteed them a place in the NCAA Tournament.

Last year’s Bears could handle a loss in the MPSF final, because getting to the semifinals alone would have gotten them an NCAA berth and a shot to win it all. This year, however, the Bears’ fate is far less certain. Anything less than a victory in the MPSF Championship will probably prevent No. 6 Cal (20-8, 2-4 MPSF) from extending its season. In essence, everything rests on one weekend of water polo.

Fans have witnessed flashes of brilliance from the Bears this season, but they have also been present for some atrocious performances. So the main question remaining is which Cal will show up to Bakersfield this weekend? Will we see the Cal team that held two top-3 teams to their lowest respective scoring outputs of the season, or will we see the one that couldn’t hold its own in a 13-5 loss to its rival Stanford? Will we see the Bears who strung together 10 consecutive victories or the ones that closed the regular season losing four out of six pivotal conference games?

The dichotomy in the Bears’ season can best be interpreted as two polar opposites, and not necessarily just the tournaments versus the conference games. Cal reached its peak when it won the Stanford tournament in early February and around the same time ranked second in the MPSF in goals allowed per game. The defense would continually press opposing teams into turnovers and numerous empty possessions, and offense stemmed from transition goals, decent powerplay efficiency and getting the ball into set.

But around late February, injuries, stronger play by opponents and perhaps a bit of overconfidence caused Cal to lose matches ─ and focus ─ against teams it was capable of defeating. By the time conference season came around, four other MPSF opponents had hit their stride while the Bears were struggling to retain theirs. Although they only suffered close losses to UCLA and Arizona State, those losses, along with embarrassing conference defeats to USC and Stanford, left the Bears where they are today ─ yearning for an NCAA berth that seemed almost certain earlier in the season.

Cal will start its uphill battle looking to avenge its most emotionally draining loss of the year ─ a 7-6 sudden death overtime loss at Arizona State in early April. That defeat stung in the moment, losing to a desperation lob-shot goal after having a penalty saved earlier in overtime. But it also was the match that forced the Bears’ late-season desperation, dropping them to fifth in the MPSF standings. So if the Bears needed any external motivation, they certainly have it against the Sun Devils.

Cal enters the tournament coming off a busy final weekend to its regular season, which included a tough road loss at No. 1 USC on Friday and a dominant win against No. 25 CSU Bakersfield on Saturday. The team seemed content with its status heading into its final week of practice before the postseason, hoping to take the positives from the win and a strong first half against USC in the coming week.

“We got some momentum. It’s all about recovery, rejuvenation, tactics now,” said Cal head coach Richard Corso. “We’ve got to rest. The girls have to take care of their nagging injuries, everybody’s got to stay healthy, positive.”

If the Bears can win against ASU, they’ll have another shot at first-seed USC in the semifinals, but if not, they will be doomed to a consolation match for fifth place. As far as Cal is concerned, it’s win or go home.

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