Despite finding itself in unfamiliar waters for two weekends in a row, the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team (8-0) has excelled, mercilessly defeating each of its competitors.
This weekend, however, at the Mountain Pacific Invitational, where the Bears will compete in their home pool for the first time this season and host some of their toughest competition yet, they will need to bring greater intensity than they did on the road. Including Cal, 13 of the 16 teams participating this weekend are ranked, with two of the remaining three receiving votes.
“The biggest thing is going to be, how do we handle adversity, and we haven’t had a whole lot of that so far in our first eight games,” said head coach Kirk Everist. “How do we play if we are behind? We haven’t seen that in the first eight games either. I anticipate we get tested significantly this weekend. How do we adjust in the middle of the game?”
Flexibility this weekend will be important within each game and also during the tournament as a whole. In the Mountain Pacific Invitational, unlike in the past two events Cal has participated in, the team only knows its first opponent. The rest will depend upon the results of the other squads’ games, so the Bears must be prepared to play any of the 15 other teams.
Whittier (6-2), Cal’s only pre-scheduled competition, is coming off of two successive losses to No. 2 USC and No. 8 UC Irvine. Aside from these two challenging matches, the Poets have had a fine season, even receiving votes in the most recent Collegiate Water Polo Association rankings. Given the success they have had so far, the Bears should have little issue reaching the winners’ quarter final bracket of this weekend’s tournament.
Assuming Cal comes away from its first game victorious and continues to play well against the remainder of its opponents, it should see higher ranked matchups as the weekend progresses. Its current ranking will be impacted by any win or loss because of the number of highly ranked teams competing. Fortunately, many non-veteran player have already demonstrated their dominance in the pool, albeit against weaker opponents.
Currently, the top three scorers are all underclassmen. At the top of the stats sheet with 25 goals is sophomore Johnny Hooper, Cal’s top scorer last season. Freshman Safak Simsek and redshirt freshman Jordan Hoover are tied for second with 13 each.
“We have a fairly young team still and a group of younger players that pose a challenge offensively,” Everist said. “They seem to be gelling well together, playing well together, sharing the ball. I think they will continue to play well as the season goes on.”
In the early part of this season, the upperclassman seem to have stepped back to provide their less experienced teammates with opportunities to improve and integrate into the Bears’ game.
“(Our upperclassmen) are getting everybody involved as the season starts and I think they know it’s important that the younger players get in the flow,” Everist said. “As the games get harder, I know (the upperclassmen) will step up in the key moments when they have to.”
The more seasoned athletes, who will likely play a large role this weekend, are the same players who were so important to Cal’s success last year. Hooper has already established his offensive dominance this fall and should continue to reinforce it this weekend. Fellow sophomore Odysseas Masmanidis, who fell just behind Hooper last season in goals made, will likely have another impressive season this year as well.
Veteran goalkeeper Lazar Andric is anticipated to have a strong final fall, and Cal’s three other seniors, Farrel South, Thomas Carroll and Chandler Jarrels, should contribute substantial defensive plays in the upcoming games.
“(The Mountain Pacific Invitational) was a big tournament last year of playing, so I would anticipate getting great effort from those guys,” Everist said. “It’s an exciting time for them.”
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]