On Thursday evening, when the lights illuminate Spieker Aquatic Complex, No. 2 Cal men’s water polo (13-1) will face off against No. 6 Long Beach State (8-3), up from the Southern California for a weekend of Bay Area competition.
Though the 49ers played in Berkeley just two weeks ago at the Mountain Pacific Invitational, they never played the Bears. Unlike Cal, who went undefeated in the first three rounds, Long Beach found itself in the losers’ bracket after a 9-4 quarterfinals loss to then-No. 2 USC, whom the Bears beat in the following round,10-8.
Excluding their upset against No. 7 UC Santa Barbara, which propelled them to the No. 6 position, the results of the 49ers games have mirrored predictions. Yet, this does not mean Cal should not expect an easy match.
“Long Beach is a really well-coached team that plays really consistent,” said head coach Kirk Everist. “You know, they gave (No. 1) UCLA a good game earlier this season. They fought against USC a pretty tough, as well as against (No. 5) Stanford, so they’re going to be a team that’s not going to beat themselves. We expect them to come out and give us a good test.”
Part of the challenge this game will be defending against the 49ers’ two top scorers, redshirt senior attacker Nolan McConnell and sophomore defender Keegan Wicken. McConnell, who redshirted last season, has quickly become Long Beach’s primary attacker and shooter. As a left-handed player, he poses a challenge to the Bears and forces them to make adjustments on defense.
“When you have one of the best offensive players, you tend to help off them a lot and (McConnell being left-handed) changes your ability to do that,” Everist said. “You definitely have to recognize and recover a little bit quicker than you do when you have a right-handed player. So we’re just going to have to recognize when he’s in and where he is, and we might not be able to help off as much or for as long if he is in the game.”
McConnell has 27 goals this season, which puts him at almost twice as many as the next leading scorer, Wicken. Last year, during one of the teams’ matchups, he scored seven goals against Cal.
Cal’s top scorer, sophomore attacker Johnny Hooper, has also had a very strong season. Not only does Hooper have 42 goals, but he has scored multiple times in every game but the one against UCLA, from which he was ejected.
In the Bears’ cage, senior goalie Lazar Andric has had an impressive season with 81 total saves — an average of 10.8 per game. He has not only been an integral part of Cal’s defense but also contributed a major offensive play that secured his team’s upset against USC two weekends ago at the Mountain Pacific Invitational.
Defense has been a major priority for the Bears this past week in practice.
“Long Beach is going to be really patient, they have a very good six on five attack, and we are going to have to limit our ejections so they can’t get into that game a lot,” Everist said. “We’re going to have to play good defense and not give away ejections. And then when we do get ejections, we’ve got to be more efficient with our attack and we’ve been working on that.”
Ultimately, Thursday is likely to be an exciting game.
“We just need to be ready to perform,” Everist said.
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]