This weekend, the No. 2 Cal women’s water polo team will make its way down to UC Irvine for the annual Barbara Kalbus Invitational. Joining them will be many women’s water polo heavyweights, such as No. 1 Stanford, No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 USC.
This will be the first time this season that the Bears (10-1) will be competing in the same tournament as the Trojans (7-0) and the Bruins (13-1), with potential matchups in the mix. Cal will begin the tournament against No. 19 Cal State Northridge on Friday.
With a win, Cal would advance to play the winner of a match between No. 6 UC Irvine and No. 15 Loyola Marymount on Saturday.
The Bears overwhelmed the Lions (7-8), 12-2, early in the year at the Rainbow Invite in Hawaii, and they pulled out a close 10-8 win against the Anteaters (3-5) at this year’s Cal Cup in Berkeley.
With such a talented, balanced group this year, Cal should expect to win both of these games and earn a spot in the semifinals.
Seniors Dóra Antal and Carla Carrega are first and third atop Cal’s scoring totals with 27 and 23 goals, respectively, helping to anchor to an explosive offense that has averaged 13.6 goals per game thus far. Antal broke the Bears’ all-time scoring record — previously 216 goals — at the Stanford Invitational earlier in the year.
Sophomore standout Emma Wright has built upon her All-American Honorable Mention last year with 24 goals in 11 matches.
The freshman duo of Elli Protopapas and Kitty Lynn Joustra have also been welcome contributors to the Bears’ attack, both having been named MPSF Newcomer of the Week at least once this season. This young trio of Wright, Protopapas and Joustra has been a key component to the Bears being named No. 2 in the country in late January, their highest since 2012.
A semifinal berth would likely mean facing one of two fellow MPSF challengers, USC or No. 3 Arizona State (9-2). Cal has yet to play either foe on the year.
The Bears have not beaten the Trojans since 2012 and have been underdogs in almost every match in that same time span. Fortunately, this will no longer be the case for Cal, as it is ranked as the second-best team in the nation. A win would be a great step forward in reversing their recent fortunes against USC, should it have the opportunity.
Cal has had less trouble with Arizona State, with a 3-2 head-to-head record in the last two seasons. The Sun Devils, however, would still prove to be a difficult foe if that is the matchup.
A potential Sunday championship in Irvine, should Cal survive, would likely be against either Stanford or UCLA.
An opportunity to break a five-game losing streak and avenge their recent finals loss at the Stanford Invitational against the Cardinal (7-0) could present itself to the Bears. Similar to Cal’s history against the USC, a win against UCLA this weekend would be the first since 2012.
The Bears have serious potential to remind its rivals that they belong in the elites of the women’s collegiate water polo world. With one of their strongest teams in years, they are poised to do so.
Dev Navani covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].