Shorthanded No. 4 Cal women’s water polo falters down the stretch against No. 3 UCLA

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Aditi Raghunath/File

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Without some of its key players, the No. 4 Cal women’s water polo team (13-4) kept it close in the first half against No. 3 UCLA before being overwhelmed by the Bruins’ potent offense. The 10-4 loss was the Bears’ first defeat of the MPSF season, and UCLA improved to 14-1 overall.

Cal’s depth was tested right from the start, as the team was missing four key players because of injuries. Roser Tarrago, a redshirt junior who competed with the Spanish Olympic team in Rio, has been out since the first weekend of the season. The Bears were also without senior Emily Loughlin, junior Kindred Paul and sophomore Rachael Lewin. If that wasn’t enough, redshirt junior Dora Antal, the team’s most consistent offensive player, was ejected from the game in the third quarter after earning her third exclusion.

“Our roles definitely had to change a bit without (Loughlin, Paul and Lewin),” said senior Stephanie Mutafyan. “We started off really strong, but in the second half, we kind of got away from what we wanted to accomplish. Overall, I think the effort and the attitude was there.”

Despite facing an uphill battle, Cal seemed unfazed early on, playing some strong defense to start the game. Senior goalie Madeline Trabucco stopped the first three Bruins shots before UCLA freshman Maddie Musselman broke through with 1:32 left in the first quarter to put the Bruins on the board first.

Cal freshman Emma Wright cut the Bruins’ advantage in half with 5:45 left in the second period after redshirt senior Kodi Hill gave UCLA a 2-0 lead. After subsequent goals by Bruins’ sophomore Rachel Whitelegge and Bears’ redshirt junior Anna Illes, both teams remained locked in a heated battle as UCLA went into the half up 3-2.

The Cal defense finally cracked from the Bruins’ tireless offensive barrage in the second half. Mutafyan brought the Bears to within one late in the third quarter, but UCLA scored four straight after that and effectively took the driver’s seat for the rest of the game.

As the Bears struggled without their key players, the Bruins also faltered when they were a player short. All four of Cal’s goals came on 6-on-5 opportunities, with Illes scoring a pair and Wright and Mutafyan adding one each.

Defensively, the Bears did a great job shutting down Musselman, the Bruins’ freshman phenom. After her first-period goal, Musselman was held scoreless for the rest of the game. She finished the match shooting only one of six from the field.

Unfortunately for Cal, redshirt senior Rachel Fattal was there to fill the scoring void left by Musselman. In the teams’ previous matchup, it was Fattal’s penalty shot with 17 seconds left that led UCLA to a 12-11 victory. This time, Fattal once again repeated the damage by connecting on a penalty late in the third. She also added three more scores in the fourth to put the game on ice for the Bruins.

With this loss, the Bears are now 1-1 in MPSF play going into next week’s match against No. 6 Arizona State. While it is still early in conference play, the loss puts more pressure on Cal going forward as it vies for good seeding in the MPSF championship in April.

Leo Liu covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].