The No. 2 Cal men’s water polo team (17-1) is quickly approaching the most important part of the season — the postseason. Having already taken down one of their most difficult opponents in No. 3 UCLA two weeks ago, the Bears will be hoping for a similar result this weekend against No. 1 USC (21-1).
The Bears and the Trojans have yet to face each other this season, but both the team’s losses have come against the Bruins. The last time the two met, however, ended with the Bears winning the 2016 NCAA Championships in Berkeley. Talk about déjà vu.
The game will start off by celebrating the six seniors who have largely contributed to the program for the past few years. In their last home game as Bears, seniors Nic Carniglia, Luca Cupido, Kevin Le Vine, Conor Neumann, Connor Reid and Pedro Stellet will all be honored.
Emotions will surely be high in this game, as they always are in a match against USC. It’s difficult to predict who has the upper hand because both teams are so strong, and it really could come down to a last-second shot. But with Cal’s home-pool advantage and the importance of this game for the seniors especially, there seems to be more incentive for the Bears to pull ahead.
While Cal may have lost star goalie Lazar Andric, who played a huge part in winning the NCAA Championships last year, the Bears have found a dependable replacement in Le Vine. With consistently strong performances, especially more recently, Le Vine will play a key role in getting Cal through their more difficult matches.
Additionally Cupido is looking his best, both in skill and leadership. With 50 goals so far this season, he leads the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation in scoring followed by juniors Johnny Hooper and Odysseas Masmanidis, ranked third and fifth respectively. It is difficult to forget Cupido’s half-court goal in the last period in the NCAA Championship game — Trojan goalkeeper senior McQuin Baron surely remembers that.
Baron is one of the nine USC seniors who will be coming to Berkeley. USC’s offense, an impressive lineup that includes eight players with at least 20 goals, is lead by none other than freshman Marko Vavic with 39 goals. While this new talent will definitely pose a challenge for the Bears, Vavic lacks the experience that is invaluable in high-profile games such as this one.
Both teams are stacked with veterans who know how great it feels to win it all and knows what it takes to get there. In addition to the seniors and MPSF scoring leaders, the Bears have redshirt sophomore Spencer Farrar, who has established himself has a top offensive player. Additionally, freshman Nikos Delagrammatikas has been a contributing member of the team, along with his fellow Greek redshirt junior Vassilis Tzavaras and sophomore Safak Simsek, who were both part of the 2016 NCAA Championship Team.
Competition between two experienced teams always brings great water polo, but two teams with a history of rivalry guarantees excitement. Saturday’s match will be unpredictable, and while it won’t really do anything when it comes to ranking, it could definitely set a precedent for how things will fare in the postseason.
Taylor Choe covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]