No. 3 Cal men’s water polo travels south for matches against Pepperdine, UC Irvine

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Micah Carroll/File

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Just last week, the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team (15-3) was in Southern California suffering a disappointing loss and sacrificing its previous ranking to one of its toughest competitors, No. 2 USC.

This weekend, the Bears return for a two-game weekend during which they will play Golden Coast Conference teams No. 9 Pepperdine (11-10) and No. 19 UC Irvine (9-10), neither of which they have seen yet this season.

Despite the recent blow to Cal’s record, the team has had a strong season overall. Its leading scorer, sophomore attacker Johnny Hooper, has 52 goals, dominating not only the Bears’ stats sheet but also all players in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which includes four of the top six teams in the nation. His offensive supremacy has been reinforced throughout the season, despite facing aggressive defense by the competition.

Cal freshman attacker Safak Simsek has also played an integral offensive role, hinting that the threat he has played so far during his first season will only grow. He has 21 goals this year.  Junior attacker Luca Cupido, who had a late start this season after recovering from his appearance with Team USA at the Rio Olympics this summer, is finally getting back to the player with whom his coaches and teammates are familiar, and he is predicted to be back to normal by the start of tournament play later this month.

In the cage, senior goalie Lazar Andric has made vital contributions to the Bears, reliably demonstrating his mastery and skill. He has 123 saves for the season, averaging 11.06 per game.

On Saturday, Cal will travel to play UC Irvine. The Anteaters’ roster features a lot of younger players as head coach Marc Hunt opted to redshirt a significant number of his strongest and most experienced players. While doing so has facilitated the development of many young and inexperienced players, it has placed his team at a disadvantage, especially when it plays opponents of the Bear’s caliber.

Irvine’s top scorers are sophomore attacker Jack Trush with 36 goals, junior attacker Ryan Warde with 32 and freshman attacker Bryant Joudrie with 23.

Junior goalkeeper Matej Matijevic has ably protected Irvine’s goal for the majority of this season. He began his collegiate career with Long Beach City College and San Jose State University, but moved to UC Irvine after deciding it was better fit. He has made 255 saves. He reached his season high of 18 saves on five occasions against USC, Whittier, Santa Clara, Pomona-Pitzer and UC Irvine.

Cal plays its second game this weekend in Malibu against Pepperdine. The last time the two teams met was almost one year ago, when the Bears effortlessly defeated the Waves 26-3 at home in Berkeley. During that game, Pepperdine’s Christopher Dilworth, Spencer Lupin and redshirt junior attacker Mark Urban were the only players capable of making their shots. All three are still on the team.

This season, the two teams meet for the Waves’ final home game of regular season play. Pepperdine’s leading scorer is sophomore Marko Asic, who has 53 goals. The Waves’ next top scorers are freshman Mate Toth and Urban, with 36 and 32 goals, respectively.

Pepperdine’s starting goalie, junior Zack Rhodes, has 205 saves this season. In his best game this year, against Pacific, he had 18 saves. Following that achievement, he was recognized as the GCC Player of the Week.

Given the Anteaters’ and the Waves’ records and levels of success this season, Cal should anticipate returning home after this last weekend on the road with two more wins. The team will not, however, be able to recover its lost No. 2 ranking, and as long as it does not lose any of its next games, will likely enter tournament play without any more movement.

Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]