Second-ranked Cal opens season with Spartan Invitational

Last season ended with bitter disappointment 2,356 miles away in Ann Arbor, Mich., where the Cal women’s water polo lost to rival Stanford in the title match.

This season begins only 51 miles away at the Spartan Invitational hosted by San Jose State. The Bears will hope to turn the page on last season and begin a new chapter in their quest for the school’s first title, taking the first steps close to home with an 11:45 a.m. bout against Santa Clara.

Cal comes into the tournament ranked No. 2 in the preseason polls as a result of its runner-up finish in 2011 and the return of many of its star athletes. Although the Bears face a void left by two-time All-American Emily Csikos, who is a member of the Canadian Olympic team competing in London this summer, Cal and its coach, Richard Corso, will see how the squad fares in her absence this Saturday and Sunday.

Junior Breda Vosters, a third-team All-American last year, will hope to pick up right where she left off after last year’s 63-goal campaign. Junior Dana Ochsner, a second-team All-American last year, will also play a big role this weekend in Cal’s first action without Csikos.

Others looking to have strong showings at the Invitational will be senior Elizabeth McLaren and sophomores Ashley Young, an honorable mention for All-American last year, and Kelly Mendoza, voted to the 2011 MPSF All-Newcomer team.

The Spartan Invitational will witness some elite talent to begin the year, with four of the seven teams coming in ranked. The No. 2 Bears highlight the field with No. 5 San Jose State, No. 16 UC Davis and No. 17 UC Santa Barbara also competing. Yet another competitor at the Invitational is a Canadian traveling team whose talent level will be determined after matches with some of America’s best teams.

Cal will play four matches in two days, a good test of fitness for the team early on in the season. On Saturday, Cal will face Santa Clara (11:45 a.m.) and UC Davis (3:30 p.m.) and then on Sunday will play Pacific (9:15 a.m.) and UC Santa Barbara (1 p.m.).

The Bears posted a perfect record against their Spartan opponents last year, beating CSU Monterey Bay, Pacific, Santa Clara and UC Davis. Although they outscored their competition, 54-14, last year, they beat host San Jose State three times over the course of last season. Heavily favored in every match, Cal will focus on showing the nation it has come to avenge its second-place finish last year.

The Cal women’s water polo squad will learn a lot from this weekend and will have taken its first steps on its path back to the NCAA Championship, though it may be 500 miles away in San Diego.