Sometimes, it’s hard to be one of the best teams in the country. Mistakes are harder to justify and bad days are simply less acceptable than they might be otherwise.
This weekend, the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team (17-3) struggled to coax wins against both of its opponents, No. 19 UC Irvine (9-12) and No. 9 Pepperdine (11-11), despite having few issues against teams with similar rankings in the past.
Saturday’s game against the Anteaters, which the Bears won 9-6, featured an especially sloppy offense that was incapable of finishing. Cal made only two out of 18 attempts on goal during the first half. Though its stats improved in the second half — seven for 20 — the low score at the end of the game was indicative of the team’s relatively unimpressive offensive performance.
“It was just one of those days where, collectively, nobody could find the net,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “We missed one-on-nobodys, one-on-goalies, counter attacks, 2-1 advantages, 6-5s from nearly every position. It was just one of those games where you just can’t find the goal and it almost seemed to be contagious.”
Captain Pedro Stellet scored the Bears’ only first-quarter goal, responding to an early score by Anteaters freshman attacker Ian Fleenor and answered by freshman attacker Jon Polos with 1 minute and 12 seconds left, giving Irvine a 2-1 lead at the end of the first quarter. Farrel South scored the only goal in the next quarter, tying up the score by the end of the half.
The game picked up when the teams returned to the pool, as the Bears scored six goals to the Anteaters’ two before the third quarter ended. Johnny Hooper scored to give Cal its first lead of the game, which it would not give up for the remainder of play time. A goal by Vassilis Tzavaras strengthened the Bears’ advantage. They were answered by an Irvine goal, but successive scores by Safak Simsek reinforced Cal’s offensive drive. Hooper and Luca Cupido, whose goals were split by a now-desperate Irvine team, further strengthened Cal’s margin to 8-4.
A last ditch effort by the Anteaters in the fourth quarter secured them an additional two points, but Simsek found the back of the net for a third time, increasing his team’s lead to three.
In a game that featured a problem-wracked offense, Cal’s defense effectively picked up the slack, a theme which characterized the entire weekend. Cal goalie Lazar Andric made 18 saves — tying his season record — in Sunday’s game against Pepperdine, which the Bears won 12-7. Collectively, Cal was 6 for 8 in defending 6-on-5s, which is the best performance it’s had in recent weeks. Additionally, it only allowed one goal in the first half and two in the following one.
Cupido had a productive game, scoring one goal in each of the first two quarters and three in the third. Chandler Jarrels, Odysseas Masmanidis, Nicholas Carniglia, Stellet and Hooper each contributed one goal, and Simsek scored two, providing the offensive power that ensured the Bears’ victory despite an evenly spaced effort by their opponents throughout the game.
The offense also demonstrated a patience the Bears have rarely displayed, which will likely be fortuitous if continued in future games.
“We scored two or three goals right at the end of the shot clock as the buzzer was about to go, and the defense was just really strung out,” Everist said. “That’s what we’re gonna need in big games. Not to feed another team’s counter-attack or turn the ball over too early, or our shooting percentage goes way down.”
The team will need to keep this in mind when it plays Stanford next weekend in the big splash, and when it begins postseason play later this month.
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]