Since December 2015 and through the entirety of the 2016 season thus far, all of the hours that the Cal men’s water polo team has spent training has led up to this point — the postseason.
This Friday, holding the No. 3 seed, the Bears will begin MPSF Tournament play in Los Angeles by facing No. 2-seeded UCLA for the third time this year. It is essential that Cal performs well in this final tournament before an intended run in the NCAAs.
“You have to be patient,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “You have to be disciplined. They don’t make too many mistakes. So, our team just has to be consistent for four quarters.”
Despite being 18-3, the Bears are 0-2 against the 24-1 Bruins this year — UCLA won the first matchup 10-7 and the second 7-6. Both games have been close and nail-biting, though, so it’s clear that Cal can compete with, and perhaps defeat, the defending national champions.
“They’re a really good team,” Everist said. “We’ve played them tough the last two times. We just have to execute as well as we can. If we do that, I think we have a good chance of winning.”
There is no shortage of talent on the Bears’ roster. Offensively, the team is led by sophomore Johnny Hooper, who also sits atop the MPSF points category. After taking a month off after the 2016 Olympics, junior Luca Cupido looks to be peaking at the perfect time, scoring three goals in Cal’s past match versus No. 4-seeded Stanford. In addition, sophomores Vassilis Tzavaras and Odysseas Masmanidis as well as juniors Nic Carniglia and Conor Neumann have played essential roles. The overall success of the team would surely not be possible without senior goalkeeper Lazar Andric and the stellar 2016 season he is having.
Despite the strength of the Bears, the Bruins seemed to pose threats across their entire roster rather than in specific positions. Senior Patrick Fellner’s 33 goals leads the team, and he’s followed closely by fellow senior Ryder Roberts, who has 30, and junior Max Irving with 29. Junior Alex Roelse and senior Joey Fuentes also have more than 20 goals each, showing the depth of UCLA’s offense.
“We have to focus mostly on defense,” said Cupido. “We have a good offense — goals will come and we’ll have a lot of opportunities. They’re a very organized team, so it’s important to face them knowing what they’re doing, so we have to focus first on defense and then we’ll take care of offense. But without defense, we are not going to be able to win.”
If Cal is able to topple the Bruins on Friday, it won’t play again until Sunday in the MPSF Championship game, virtually securing a spot in the NCAA tournament. The tournament’s top three teams will most likely be given the opportunity to fight for the National Championship title starting Dec. 3.
The expectations are certainly high for the Bears, and the fact that the National Championship game will be played in Berkeley makes the anticipation and hunger even stronger to qualify. Because what could be sweeter than being crowned NCAA Champions on their home turf?
Taylor Choe covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]