Time’s up. If there’s anything the No. 5 Cal men’s water polo team has been holding back or has up its sleeve, the time to dish it out is now. This weekend, the Bears will head to Long Beach State to enter the MPSF tournament, where they will need to crack the top three if they want to have a shot at qualifying for the NCAA tournament.
On Friday morning, Cal (20-6, 4-4 MPSF) will play its first scheduled match against host team No. 4 Long Beach State, a game that will be titled “Game Two” in the tournament. This season, these two teams have played a total of three times, two of which the Bears have won. But the reason the 49ers are ranked one spot above Cal is because of these two teams’ most recent matchup Nov. 2.
Outscored 5-2 in the third quarter, the Bears found themselves struggling to assert their defensive dominance and allowed Long Beach State to pull off a 12-10 upset. Entering the tournament Friday, Cal should be coming in as the better team. The Bears have the advantage of winning the season series 2-1, and they have shown the potential to be able to play with the best teams as evidenced by Cal’s wins over Stanford and Southern California.
But Nov. 2’s game tells a lot about Cal this year. Although the talent is there, fans cannot always count on consistency. The Bears have lost six games this year, half of which have come during their current three-game losing streak, and every time they lose, there has been a similar theme.
When Cal fails to establish the tempo early on in the first and third quarters, it becomes vulnerable. The Bears’ winning formula relies on having a specific chain of events fall in the team’s favor. A chain that starts in the defense.
All they need is one early stop. As soon as the Bears force a turnover or a low-percentage shot, they will not hesitate to seize the opportunity to push the break. Cal has struggled much more in the half-court this year, but off transition, goals are much more easier to come by. By doing this, not only will the Bears be maintaining a consistent offensive attack, but they will also protect goalie Jon Sibley.
Every time a goal is scored, it gives the players time to retreat back and set up its defense. So once the other team has to carry the ball up the pool, the Bears, instead of exhausting their energy trying to sprint back to defense off a poor offensive possession, are already in position and can effectively press the opposing teams’ ball-handlers. Once this happens, everything falls into place, and the other team never gets into rhythm and is uncomfortable all game.
It doesn’t matter who Cal faces this weekend. If the team can play the kind of water polo it excels in, no team should be a threat. But the question is, can the Bears execute and play according to their momentum? This season, it’s been up and down. Sometimes, they’ve been able to execute, and sometimes, it hasn’t worked out. This weekend, if it doesn’t work out and Cal fails to place within the top three of the MPSF, the season’s over.
Richard Lee covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].