It was a historic weekend for the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team — one that featured major upsets against the only teams to which it has lost and that ended in the Bear’s 14th national championship.
“It’s a team that you kind of saw grow up in two days,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “We needed great efforts from different people, we needed people to step up in different positions. We trust all of our players and I think they all felt it and they played like it. When their time came, they would step up. Those are the things you need when the game is on the line.”
On Saturday, in a high stakes game with unstable leads, unnerving comebacks and a double overtime win, the Cal men’s water polo team clawed its way to a victory. The Bears beat then-No. 2 UCLA — the only team it had not beat once this season — and ensured that this year, unlike the last, they would make it to the final round of the NCAA championship.
“(UCLA is) a champ team for a reason, a team that went on an ungodly run of wins for a reason,” Everist said. “And you’re gonna have to rip it out of their hands.”
Saturday featured a standout defensive effort by the Bears. Goalie Lazar Andric made 16 saves and multiple players contributed field blocks to ensure that the strong offense of a previously undefeated team would be unable to hit the back of the net.
The Bruins won the first sprint, and although their first possession ended in a one of goalie Lazar Andric’s many saves of the evening, they soon made the first score of the game on a power play. Yet this early lead proved to be temporary, as just a minute and a half later, the Bears responded with a goal of their own when Vassilis Tzavaras scored to end a long pass around.
The resulting 1-1 tie lasted until 1:35 into the second quarter, when Odysseas Masmanidis gave Cal its first lead of the game. But both teams’ defenses were unwavering and the low-scoring half ended 2-1 Bears.
After the break, Cal and UCLA traded goals twice, with Safak Simsek scoring both for the Bears. They kept their lead throughout this exchange, until a score by Patrick Fellner swiped the back of the cage for a 4-4 tie. Cal refused to let this stand, and regained its lead after contributions by Luca Cupido and Farrel South.
Despite an early shot by leading scorer Johnny Hooper that solidified Cal’s lead to three, the Bruins responded with four goals to give them their first advantage since the beginning of the game. With 3:34 left in regulation time, Conor Neumann brought the game to an 8-8 that endured until the clock ran out.
A first overtime period proved unsuccessful for both teams, and the score did not change until the last minute of the second period. With 55 seconds left, Neumann made his second goal of the game to give Cal a one point lead that, along with its strong defense for the remaining time, would guarantee its participation in the finals.
“They weren’t going to give up a goal on defense just because they were tired in this game with this crowd,” Everist said. “You’re gassed, but it’s just harder to quit.”
The next day, the Bears fought for the honor of winning the national championship trophy in their own pool, upsetting then-No. 1 USC 11-8. The Trojans were much more well-rested and had practically floated to a win against Harvard the night before, but Cal was not going to let this stop it from beating them in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.
“We are tired, but we were tired from losing close games,” Andric said. “We are not tired anymore. We are ready for tomorrow.”
Channeling this excitement, the Bears faced the Trojans, who had knocked them out of finals contention last year.
The game began with Cal unable to make any goal attempts stick and trailed 2-0 at the end of the first quarter. Hooper put the Bears on the scoreboard with 5:52 left on the clock, but the Trojans refused to go into half time without scoring once more themselves. With 1:27 left, Cal was once again trailing by two.
When the teams returned to the pool after the half, nothing initially indicated that the Bears would come back to win the game.
But Cal was not going to go down easy. In the course of four minutes, it outscored itself in the previous three quarters combined. Beginning with a goal by Neumann with 6:45 left in regulation time that brought the score to 4-5, Cal began a steady climb towards an overtime appearance. Cupido brought the game to a tie at 5-5 and Simsek pushed the Bears into the lead. USC evened it up and the two teams traded goals one more to enter the first overtime period, 7-7.
A five-meter penalty shot by Hooper secured the Bears their first lead in overtime. Though James Walters tied the game up again, a skip shot by South flew under USC goalie McQuin Baron putting Cal on top 9-8. But the Bears were not done with the Trojans. With a stopped clock at no time left in the first overtime period, and with the buzzer yet to sound, Cupido launched a shot that brought the score to 10-8.
In the following three minutes, the Bears worked hard to keep USC where it was and Simsek managed to sink one last goal.
“I knew we were going to win since yesterday,” Cupido said.
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]