Since the establishment of the NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship in 2001, three teams have dominated the scene. The trio of Stanford, UCLA and USC combined has won all 16 national championships and made 30 appearances in the title game. In those 16 years, there have only been two other instances in which another team has made the finals: Loyola Marymount in 2004 and Cal in 2011.
The Cardinal, Bruins and Trojans were once again at the top of the standings to begin the year. While a top-five nationally ranked team is seldom considered the underdog, the No. 4 Cal women’s water polo team has spent the entire season on the outside looking in, staring in at the upper echelon of the water polo hierarchy.
There is a sizeable skill dropoff between the Bears and the Goliaths, but that hasn’t stopped Cal from believing that they can upset these water polo giants.
Aside from a 10-4 loss on the road against No. 1 UCLA, the Bears have performed admirably against the water polo elites. During the regular season, Cal held No. 2 Stanford and No. 3 USC under double-digit goals and dropped a nail-biter to the Bruins on a last-second goal. Even in the six-goal loss to UCLA, the Bears kept it close in the first half despite missing four key players due to injury.
In the MPSF Championship, Cal came out even stronger and gave the Bruins and the Trojans a run for their money. The Bears held fourth-quarter leads in both games before ultimately faltering down the stretch. While it finished fourth in the tournament, Cal’s inspiring performance gave its fans hope that it can be the dark horse in the NCAA tournament.
This Friday, the Bears will take on No. 5 UC Irvine (23-6 overall, 5-0 conference) in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship. The last time Cal was in the national tournament, it also faced off against the Anteaters in the first round, defeating them 6-5.
UC Irvine, champions of the Big West Conference, will enter the tournament having won 14 games in a row. Led by junior Mary Brooks, the Big West Player of the Year who has scored a team-high 63 goals, the potent Anteater offense averages 10.2 goals per game. Helping run the UC Irvine offense are seniors McKenna Mitchell and Kelsey Thornton, who have 48 and 45 goals for the year, respectively.
While the UC Irvine goalies have only given up 6.7 goals per game this season, its defense has clamped down more in the past month. Since redshirt-senior goalie Annika Nelson returned to the water April 1, she has allowed a stingy 3.04 goals per game.
If Cal can push pass Brooks, Nelson and the Anteaters, it will likely face UCLA in the semifinals, where it will look to play spoilers to the Bruins’ championship hopes. With the way the Bears stepped up to the challenge in the MPSF Tournament, we can expect very competitive games in the NCAA Championship.
Leo Liu covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].