Getting off to early leads is impressive in any sport, but maintaining those leads throughout the course of an entire game is even more noteworthy. This week, Cal men’s water polo used strong first-half performances to remain unbeaten on the season. The No. 3 Bears (6-0) took down a pair of Northern California opponents on the road, beating No. 5 Pacific and UC Davis this past week.
In a Thursday night game in Davis, the Bears had to adjust to playing without two of their senior leaders — Odysseas Masmanidis and Johnny Hooper. To make up for those missing centerpieces, Cal displayed a more balanced attack and got contributions from all over the pool. By halftime, the Bears had a commanding 10-5 lead.
While the offensive production slowed down in the second half, Cal still squeaked out a 13-10 victory, led by senior Vassilis Tzavaras, who tallied four goals.
“It was an opportunity for different players to play in a good environment. We got a lot of freshmen in that game — probably eight freshmen,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “We scored 13 goals, which is good. We gave up a few more than we would like, but it was a good experience without Masmanidis or Hooper.”
With Masmanidis back in the lineup Saturday, Cal defeated Pacific 11-8. After a dominant first-half showing, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the Bears took a 5-1 lead into the break.
Similar to the match against UC Davis, it was a much more competitive match in the latter half of the contest. Pacific junior Andrea De Nardi eventually tied the game 8-8 late in the fourth quarter to add some unexpected pressure.
“We ended up scoring a couple goals, but we got good possessions that last half of the fourth quarter after they tied it,” Everist said. “Sometimes with a young team and some young players in there, you can get bad decisions, but I felt like the guys made good passes, isolated people and were able to get good offense, so we had a chance to score.”
Ultimately, it was Cal junior Safak Simsek’s third and final goal that proved to be the most timely, as it broke the tie late in the fourth quarter and gave the Bears a lead they would not surrender for the final few minutes. Tzavaras also racked up three goals in the contest, proving to be one of the team’s most valuable goal scorers so far this season.
“We had five or six really good shots in the last four minutes — scored two of them — but we were keeping them honest and having to play defense when they’re pinning their ears back and trying to go every time, because they had momentum,” Everist said.
Cal dug deep and hung on when the going got tough this weekend — a tactic they know they will have to employ when they are inevitably down players in future important games. As the season continues to progress and the team dynamic rounds more and more into shape, the Bears will only strengthen their case to prove that they are one of the top programs in the nation.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].