The No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team’s ranking does not guarantee it a spot in the NCAA Championship tournament games this weekend, even though the event is in its own stadium. In fact, while reigning NCAA champion No. 2 UCLA and current MPSF Championship-winner No. 1 USC both proceed straight to the semi-final round Saturday, the Bears (20-4) must prove they are deserving of a shot at the title in a play-in home game against No. 17 Pomona-Pitzer (23-8) on Thursday.
“I think this is going to be a good opportunity for us to kind of get into the tournament and play again,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “I like the concept of being able to play a game early in the week. The guys are anxious to play and this gives us the ability to do that instead of having to scrimmage against each other.”
The Sagehens are coming to Berkeley on the back of a undefeated conference season and a SCIAC championship win that gave them automatic placement in the playoffs for the NCAA tournament. Of their past 15 games, they have won 14, losing only to No. 5 UC Santa Barbara, whom the Bears beat twice this season.
“I think if you look at the common opponents, we are pretty confident in our abilities in this game,” Everist said. “But it is the end of the season, and they are conference champions. The games they played against our conference teams were very early in the season, so I know that they are going to be a better team than they probably were, and we are a better team than we were in September as well.”
Pomona-Pitzer’s leading scorers, sophomore Adam Ward and senior James Baker, boast impressive numbers, with 63 and 60 goals for the season, respectively. The Sagehens’ defense is led by junior goalkeeper Daniel Diemer, who made 202 saves this season.
Although the Sagehens’ recent performance proves the team has been largely successful, they will have a tough game against a strong Bears team.
Cal is coming off of a relatively strong MPSF tournament performance, where it lost for the third time this season to UCLA in a close game early on. It dominated both Penn State Behrend and No. 6 Stanford, beating the former by double digits — 17-4 — and the latter 15-9.
Offensively, the Bears are led by sophomore Johnny Hooper who has 68 goals this season, the most of any MPSF player. In the cage, Bears senior goalkeeper Lazar Andric has proven his prowess in goal time and again, averaging more than 11 saves per game, totaling 189 for the entire season.
Though contributions from these players have proven important to Cal’s success this season, the focus going into Thursday’s game is a strong all-around performance that does not depend solely on any single player.
“From a team standpoint, if we can establish our defense early and our counter attack, we will be able to control the game,” Everist said. “We are very confident that if we play a good game, we can win and get a shot at UCLA on Saturday.”
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org