The No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team began its two-game weekend at home Saturday afternoon with the risers at the Spieker Aquatics Complex completely packed as students, parents, fans and Cal water polo alumni gathered to watch one of the toughest games of season.
Despite the audible support from the stands and the spirited Cal dance team tossing their hair on the north edge of the pool, the Bears suffered a close 7-6 loss to unstoppable No. 1 UCLA, which picked up its 54th consecutive win.
This is not the first time Cal has played the Bruins the season, and, in fact, it gave them a more difficult game this weekend than it did in the final round of the Mountain Pacific Invitational in September. In that game, the Bears let the Bruins take the lead early on, and despite managing to significantly decrease their opponents’ lead, only got within two goals once.
“This game was kind of back and forth,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “Nobody was really able to get away. I think they got up 4-2 at one point but it became a one point game pretty much the whole game.”
The difficulty of Saturday’s match was apparent from the start of the game — the Bruins were already on the board just over a minute into play. Despite multiple possessions from both teams, however, neither was able to score again until the final seconds of the first quarter, when, with nine seconds left, Cal junior attacker Connor Reid tied the game 1-1.
The two teams continued to trade goals throughout much of the second quarter. The Bruins scored the first on a penalty shot. Bears senior goalie Lazar Andric reached out his arm to stop the ball, but it rebounded off his arm into the net. Cal refused to accept defeat, however, and just 30 seconds later, responded with a goal of its own with a shot by junior attacker Conor Neumann on a power play.
Shots by UCLA senior attacker Patrick Fellner and junior utility Alex Roelse gave the Bruins their first two-point lead of the game. The Bears were intent on not entering half-time with a deficit of that size, however, and sophomore utility Odysseas Masmanidis made sure that there was only a one-point differential of 4-3 at the half.
The game appeared as though it might have been beginning to get away from Cal again when Roelse scored for a second time. Despite multiple attempts, the Bears were unable to counter. Yet with 2:10 left in the period, junior attacker Luca Cupido scored a goal that appeared to fly effortlessly into the back of the net, eliciting a roar from the stands.
Cal began the final quarter determined, coming out of the break with speed to win the sprint. At 7:19, freshman attacker Safak Simsek tied the match for the first time since the second quarter. UCLA responded and the two teams traded goals once more. At 2:07 with a 6-6 tie, the Bruins scored their last goal, one which Cal was unable to duplicate thanks to a strong performance from UCLA senior goalie Garrett Danner.
“We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Everist said. “I thought we had a couple of opportunities after we tied it at five that could’ve gotten us to that 6-5 lead. We just couldn’t. Garrett (Danner) came out of the goal a couple times on the opportunities that we had. At the end of the day you tip your hat. But we are making progress and we’ll see them again, I know.”
The tight score is indicative of both teams’ strong defensive efforts and goalie performances. Danner had 11 saves and Andric had nine. In fact, Andric contributed greatly in the Bears second game this weekend — against Pacific — in which he had 13 saves and four steals.
On Sunday afternoon, the Bears traveled to Stockton for their second game this weekend, where they played No. 4 Pacific, whom they beat 14-10 in a hard-fought match.
Cal redshirt freshman Nick Bisconti won the opening sprint, giving the Bears the possession from which Neumann would score their first goal. Shortly after, however, the Tigers responded with a point of their own. The teams traded goals for the rest of the half, never once allowing their opponent to feel comfortable in a dominant position. In addition to Neumann’s at the start of the game, Bears saw three goals by sophomore attacker Johnny Hooper and one each by Masmanidis and Cupido before the half.
When play resumed, Cal began to display the tenacity that would earn it the victory. After winning the sprint just as they had the prior two quarters and would again the next, the Bears began the scoring spree that would guarantee them their win. Senior defender Thomas Carroll and Masmanidis each contributed shots that gave Cal a two-point lead.
Despite the Tigers’ attempts to play catch-up, additional goals by Bears leading scorer Hooper — whose four in this game put him at 50 for the season — Cupido and junior center Pedro Stellet ensured the Bears would drive home triumphant.
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]