The No. 5 Cal women’s water polo team finished the regular season losing six of its past eight games, but there are still reasons to be optimistic about its future. In their last game, the Bears held No. 3 USC, then the highest-scoring team in the MPSF, to its lowest offensive output of the season. After two weeks of rest and preparation, the Bears are ready to take on No. 4 Arizona State in the first round of the MPSF tournament.
Cal’s performance in this tournament will have huge implications on whether it will advance to the NCAA Championships. Out of 10 available spots, seven berths are automatically given to the champions of the seven water polo conferences in the United States, while the remaining three teams are selected by a committee. Even if they do not win the whole tournament, the Bears will get a great shot of earning one of the three at-large bids if they prevail over the Sun Devils and perform at a high level throughout the weekend. .
In each of the past two seasons, these two teams have met in the first round of the conference tournament, and twice Cal has come out on top by one goal. In the regular season, the Bears went 1-1 against ASU, striking first with a 10-4 victory in the Barbara Kalbus Invitational. The Sun Devils, however, responded by stealing a game in Berkeley last month by a score of 7-6.
“(During the bye week) we really just focused on getting the little things down, and just really fine-tuning everything,” said Cal senior Stephanie Mutafyan. “We’re definitely motivated to come out and come back with a win, especially when they came in and beat us in our home pool.”
The two teams are just about evenly matched. This season, the Bears have averaged 11.1 goals per game and allowed 6.7. On the other side, ASU has netted 9.9 and has only given up 6.2 per game. All signs indicate a close match between the conference foes.
The winner of this match up will face tournament host UCLA in the semifinals. As there are seven teams in the MPSF, the top-ranked Bruins are awarded a bye in the first round to give them an extra edge on top of their home-court advantage.
On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Stanford will face No. 22 CSU Bakersfield, and USC will play No. 14 San Jose State. If the Cardinal and Trojans can take care of business in the first round, they will face off in a rematch of last season’s national championship game — a game in which USC squeaked by Stanford, 8-7.
Considering the strength of the teams in the MPSF, performing well in the conference tournament is almost indicative of success in the NCAA Championships. If Cal can come away with a victory against the Sun Devils and continue to play well throughout the weekend, it can very well steamroll its way into the national tournament and do some major damage.
Leo Liu covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].