The Cal women’s water polo team began this year with dreams of a repeat run to the national championship. The squad was ranked No. 2 in the preseason and had two all-Americans returning, as well as a host of other young stars.
Twenty-seven games later, the team is back home in Berkeley, watching the NCAA Championships instead of competing in them.
“It’s disappointing for everyone involved,” said coach Richard Corso. “We had every intention of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. The three seniors and the rest of the ball club was angry and sad.”
The Bears (18-9, 4-3 in the MPSF) began the season by winning its first 10 games, playing like the country’s No. 2 team against lesser opponents.
Then came the Stanford Invitational in early February, and Cal’s season took a turn for the worse. The squad lost its first two games to UCLA and USC, dropping the Bears to No. 4 nationally.
It was a devastating blow for a team out to prove that the previous year had not been a fluke.
“When you finish off the past season so well and then immediately drop pretty low, it was hard at first,” said junior Dana Ochsner. “We fought to show we were better than fourth.”
Following the drop, Cal endured a 7-6 stretch that included a drubbing at the hands of No. 1 Stanford and a loss at No. 5 Arizona State.
For a team built on a slow, ball control style of play, slow first quarters usually proved disastrous. Teams like Arizona State and San Diego State — squads that Cal was supposed to handle easily — were outscoring the Bears in the first frame.
“Coming out and playing hard in the first minute of every game was something we can really improve on for next year,” Ocshner said.
The Bears entered the MPSF tournament needing to impress the selection committee to earn an NCAA berth. The knockout punch was delivered by the Trojans in their semifinal match. Cal missed out on one of two at-large bids for an eight-team NCAA field, sending the Bears home for the summer.
In a year where the team was swept by No. 3 USC, lost three matches against archrival Stanford by a total of 36-15, and failed to qualify for the NCAAs, it’s no wonder the team felt the way they did after it was all over.
Yet despite not qualifying for NCAAs, there were some bright spots. Junior Breda Vosters led the team with 49 goals in 25 games, earning herself a first team all-MPSF honor. Ochsner was named to the second team and freshman Tiera Schroeder was named to the all-MPSF newcomer team.
Although the Bears will lose the services of senior Elizabeth McLaren, whose leadership proved invaluable, the team has a stellar class of juniors ready to step into a leadership role.
“There is no one individual player that we can build a team around,” Corso said. “I think there are eight girls that we can build a team with.”
Furthermore, the team will be bolstered by the return of Emily Csikos from a year of international play with Team Canada.
“Emily is one of the best players in the world,” Corso said. “It’s like picking up a professional player coming back to college.”
Although Corso witnessed disappointment in his player’s faces, he knows the team has a lot to build upon going forward. What’s more, they still finish one of the best squads in the nation.
“No matter what happens next weekend at NCAAs, we will still be the fourth best team in the country,” Corso said.