Throw all pretenses of ranking, reason and humanity out the window. It’s the Big Splash. Sheer passion and grit are what truly take over during this rivalry game, and this year’s conclusion determines much more than extravagant bragging rights — the winner also likely claims the title of MPSF regular-season champion. No. 1 Cal men’s water polo, sporting a towering 18-1 record, will challenge a surging No. 3 Stanford team (16-3) this Thursday.
A dramatic stage has been set for Thursday’s matchup, with each team coming off of its biggest win of the season. Cal hosted and vanquished then-No. 1 USC on Saturday in a rematch of last season’s NCAA championship game to the enjoyment of a booming crowd. The Bears’ defense made a statement by only allowing three goals to a potent Trojan offense. With the defense standing strong, Cal scored a 6-3 grind-it-out victory, adjusting to the absence of offensive stud Luca Cupido. The win has vaulted the Bears into the top spot in men’s water polo and has furthered their current win streak to eight games.
Meanwhile, Stanford has snuck up on the frontrunners with an upset over perennial power and third-ranked UCLA. The Cardinal’s freshman star Ben Hallock proved to be a deadly threat to the Bruins as he dropped a hat trick, a feat he has accomplished on 10 other occasions this season. The 7-5 win over UCLA in Stanford allows the Cardinal to edge closer to the MPSF regular-season championship. A win over the Bears and a USC loss to UCLA is all the Cardinal need to take first seed in the MPSF postseason tournament.
The last meeting between the Bears and the Cardinal (Sept. 24) ended just like the four previous meetings did — with a Cal victory. In the latest of these, Stanford kept it competitive throughout and even claimed a lead over Cal at half. But, the Bears responded strongly in the second half and walked away with an 11-9 win.
That loss to Cal has apparently fired up the Cardinal, as they have methodically taken down every opponent they’ve faced since. During this stretch, Stanford has won 10 straight, including its recent besting of UCLA — the team responsible for the Bears’ sole loss all season.
Though a tall order, confronting the Cardinal and their fiery momentum is a task that the Bears can handle. Showcased in its shutdown of the Trojans on Saturday, the Bears have exceptional defensive capability and will be able to quiet Stanford’s prolific Hallock. Cal will likely be even stronger this Thursday than they were against USC with the advantage of a healthy Cupido.
It’s plenty exciting to have such a heated rivalry in the Big Splash coincide with important implications for the MPSF tournament and the NCAA playoffs. But put aside win streaks, results of last meetings and playoff implications, and you’re left with two teams that are always eagerly awaiting a chance to crush that other school across the bay. Expect nothing less than a sensational display of raw competitive spirit this afternoon in this Bay Area classic.
Armen Aprahamian covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]