Cal men’s water polo looks to defend National Championship

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It’s the last game of the fall 2016 season and the Cal men’s water polo team is playing at home fighting for the NCAA championship. The stands are full and the crowd goes wild as the buzzer echoes and the Bears defeat USC 11-8, earning their 14th title.

But that was last year, and now it’s the beginning of another school year, and as the 2017 season approaches Cal will be looking to defend its National Championship status.

Luckily for the Bears, most of their core offensive players will be returning this season. All-Americans senior Luca Cupido and juniors Johnny Hooper and Odysseas Masmanidis will play important roles in helping the them repeat. Redshirt junior Vassilis Tzavaras, sophomore Safak Simsek and seniors Conor Neumann and Connor Reid are also returning members of the 2016 Championship team who know what it takes to reach that level of play. Cupido, who was a 2016 Olympian, and fellow senior Pedro Stellet will serve as captains in their last seasons at Cal.

A few of Cal’s players had an exciting water polo-filled summer competing in international play. Senior Nic Carniglia, Cupido and Hooper all played for the US in the World Championships. Carniglia also trained with team USA in the spring of 2016.

“We’re hoping their experience over the summer is invaluable,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “I think it’s really important for a number of reasons. The level of play that they got to see, and compete at, some of them getting all the way to the final, winning a gold medal at the junior level is really really important. Just the level of play, I think it really sparks your growth and development, so I would hope that you’re going to see a maturity in those players that was jumpstarted by that experience.”

Hooper had a doubly busy summer, also competing in the FINA Junior World Championship, along with redshirt sophomore Nick Bisconti, Masmanidis and newcomer Nikos Delagrammatikas. Both Masmanidis and Delagrammatikas played for their Mediterranean home country, helping Greece win gold.

“We have a few freshmen that are probably going to play right away,” Everist says. “Nikos Delagrammatikas, a kid from Greece who played on the world team and won a junior world medal with Odysseas this past summer. We anticipate him making an impact. He’s got experience. Obviously he had a great summer playing internationally, so he’s going to play and I think will make an impact.”

With so many of the Bears’ players having played at such high levels this past summer, it seems that Cal should be favored to repeat. There is a name, however, that seems to be missing from the mix — Lazar Andric, now an alumnus. Andric, the Bears’ goalkeeper, was a key component to their success last season, always seeming to come up with a save when it mattered most. His lack of presence with probably land the heaviest blow to Cal’s lineup.

There are three players competing for the position of starting goalkeeper, which as of right now is up in the air. Senior Kevin LeVine, junior Spencer Tagg and sophomore Bernardo Carelli all have a fair chance of filling the big shoes left by Andric.

In addition to losing their star goalkeeper, the Bears will also be missing Farrel South, Thomas Carroll and Chandler Jarrels. As seniors last season, they were impactful players who provided the skill, experience and leadership that Cal needed in crucial moments. Fortunately, the Bears have Delagrammatikas and another newcomer, Ryan Hurst, looking to replace them.

“Hurst from Huntington Beach is another 2 meter defender that we’re going to need to help us out,” Everest said. “We lost a lot of guys with Chandler Jarrels and Farrel South and Thomas Carroll at that position. We’re young at the two-meter defense spot so I think those two guys are going to have the biggest load on them as far as true freshmen, though, in kind of doing that.”

Newcomers and returning players alike will all be in control of Cal’s fate this season. A championship team isn’t something that is easily built. That’s why there are so few of them. They require all players to do their part and to possess a level of desire higher than the opposition. So if the Bears are able to compete at a level similar to last year, they should be looking at another successful season.

Taylor Choe covers men’s tennis. Contact her at [email protected]