The No. 5 Cal women’s water polo team stormed into the MPSF Tournament and played some of the best water polo it has all season. While the Bears did not win the tournament, they competed admirably against some of the best teams in the nation and finished fourth overall, which will certainly bolster their case for one of the three at-large berths for the NCAA Championships.
Cal (15-9) faced No. 4 Arizona State in the opening round looking to avenge a one-goal loss at home in late March. Redshirt sophomore Kacey Avalos scored on the Bears’ first offensive possession and they never looked back. Cal led by as many as three goals and never trailed in this game.
The two teams exchanged goals throughout the first half and the score was tied up at three heading into the intermission. The game remained close for much of the third quarter until freshman Emma Wright, sophomore Sarah Siepker and senior Genevieve Weed netted three straight goals to make it 8-5 and break the game wide open for the Bears.
While the Sun Devils bounced back from smaller deficits earlier in the game, the three-goal margin proved to be too much to overcome. With a 9-7 victory against Arizona State, Cal advanced to a semifinal showdown against No. 1 UCLA.
Against the tournament’s top seed and eventual champion, the Bears dug themselves into a 2-0 hole within the first three minutes of the match. Determined to keep the game competitive, Cal brought itself within one on a penalty shot, then exploited a 6-on-5 opportunity to tie up the game. From there, the match swayed back-and-forth.
In the second quarter, the Bruins rattled off three straight goals to go up 6-3, but the Bears responded with four in a row to take a 7-6 lead, their first of the game, with 3:13 left in the third quarter. After UCLA freshman Maddie Musselman scored the equalizer, Wright came back with a score of her own on the ensuing possession, giving Cal an 8-7 lead heading into the fourth.
The final period was all Bruins. Musselman once again tied up the game and freshman Bronte Halligan scored the winning goal with 2:35 left, propelling UCLA to a 9-8 victory. With the loss, the Bears were bumped into the third place match against No. 3 USC.
The game against the Trojans followed a similar course. After heading into the half tied 3-3, Cal fell behind 5-3 late in the third. The Bears took a 6-5 lead with 4:30 remaining in the fourth behind three goals by Wright, senior Stephanie Mutafyan and redshirt junior Anna Illes. Despite Cal’s valiant comeback effort, USC regained control of the game by scoring three in a row to give the game its final score of 8-6.
A fourth-place finish in the MPSF Tournament does not exactly scream championship contender, but the Bears proved that they should not be taken lightly. Cal held fourth quarter leads against two of the top-three teams in the nation, and both games could have easily gone either way. If the Bears advance to the NCAA Championships and execute down the stretch, they can expect to make a deep run in the tournament.
Leo Liu covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].