There is perhaps no better feeling than beating your biggest rival. But beating your rival for the first time in 15 years to knock the team out of the conference tournament it was favored to win just might top that. The Cal women’s water polo team was able to achieve that feeling Saturday when the No. 4 Bears defeated No. 1 Stanford in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship Tournament.
Cal’s 8-7 victory propelled it to the championship game, where it took on No. 2 UCLA. Beating the nation’s top two teams proved to be too much for the Bears (19-7), as the Bruins (24-2) were able to pull out a close win in the final, 9-8.
Despite the second-place finish, the Bears will leave this weekend more than satisfied having finally beaten their rivals across the bay after a series of 41 consecutive losses. In fact, the last time the Bears defeated the Cardinal — March 26, 2000 — a young Vladimir Putin had just been elected to his first term as president of Russia. Needless to say, it’s been a while.
Cal was on top of its game this weekend. On defense, the Bears were propelled by the phenomenal goal-keeping of sophomore Madeline Trabucco. She made 26 saves in the Bears’ games this weekend, the first of which was in a 5-4 win against No. 7 Arizona State in the opening round.
In both of the Bears’ wins, Trabucco made crucial saves as Cal’s opponents tried to claw back with the game winding down to save both victories. She has gone much of the year without being tested all that much — facing only 10.61 shots on goal per game — but she showed that she can step up her game when needed, as she had some of her best games of the year this weekend.
While Trabucco’s contributions were important, the offense made much of the difference in Cal’s wins this weekend. The Bears saw a balanced showing on offense that had been lacking in recent weeks, when Cal relied too much on its offensive stars — sophomores Dora Antal, Roser Tarrago and Anna Illes. In fact, no one outside of this trio had scored for the Bears in their three games heading into the tournament — games where the Bears went 1-2.
That changed, and the scoring opened up over the weekend, as Cal relied on important contributions from its role players. Against the Cardinal, freshman Carla Carrega and senior Kelly McKee each had two goals, including an important goal by McKee with 5:37 left to put the Bears up 8-5 and seal the win for the team.
Against the Sun Devils, it was sophomore Emily Loughlin who gave her team a much-needed contribution by leading Cal with two goals. Even in the UCLA game, where Cal came up just short, the Bears saw contributions from their role players, as Loughlin and McKee contributed three goals.
This weekend’s rivalry win was the first time Cal has defeated one of the nation’s top three teams in the previous two seasons, going 0-15 against such teams leading up to this game. Finally notching a victory against one of the elite teams will surely be a confidence booster for the Bears as they head into the NCAA tournament in two weeks, knowing they have what it takes to win it all should they play their best polo.
Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].