Heading into this weekend’s bout, Cal men’s water polo head coach Kirk Everist noted that “Santa Barbara is a tough place to play,” but having already defeated UCSB two times this season, Cal (12-2, 1-0 MPSF) entered Saturday’s game with confidence. The previous two matchups took place in neutral waters, but this time, at home in Isla Vista, the No. 6 Gauchos (9-4, 0-2 MPSF) had all the motivation they needed to push the No. 4 Bears to their limits.
Down 5-4 to UCSB at halftime, the Bears entered the fourth quarter tied at 8, with senior captain Colin Mulcahy ejected after his third exclusion foul. Cal faced an uphill battle for the final eight minutes but responded formidably. With stout defense throughout the frame, the Bears shut out the Gauchos for the remainder of the game. Three quick goals in a two-minute span then sealed the win for Cal. The 12-8 road victory served as a challenge but also as a solid start to conference play in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
“(UCSB’s) pool is notorious. … They have great fans who get after you in the environment, and it’s a tough place to go into and play,” Mulcahy said. “But I think it was good for our team. We were tied going into the fourth quarter, and for us to get another win where we have to battle it out builds character.”
It was clear from the start that the Gauchos were on a mission of redemption, as they quickly opened up a 3-1 lead in the first five minutes after freshman driver Borislav Jovanovic scored a 6-on-5 goal after an exclusion to Cal’s Johnny Hooper. Cal continued to struggle in the first half, failing to convert on six 6-on-5 opportunities, and was thankful to be down by only one goal entering halftime.
The Bears returned to the pool in the second half with renewed energy. Two goals from sophomore Luca Cupido and one apiece from Mulcahy and freshman utility player Odysseas Masmanidis brought Cal even by the end of the third quarter.
Despite Mulcahy’s absence in the fourth, the Bears worked together as a defensive unit and showed why they deserve their ranking in the “big four” — as Mulcahy calls the top four teams in the nation — preventing the Gauchos from getting strong looks at the goal.
Defensive success transitioned to offensive opportunity, and the freshman Hooper capitalized twice, first at the 5:06 mark. In the next two minutes, Cupido and Masmanidis completed their hat tricks at the 3:56 and 3:12 marks, respectively. This three-goal burst solidified the game in the hands of the Bears, and Hooper added one final goal at the 1:21 mark to seal the win beyond all doubt.
Masmanidis’ hat trick was his fifth of the season, and he was again lethal from the center position, as he has been all season.
“(Masmanidis’) strengths are finishing in front of the cage, and the more we get him the ball in positions where he can use that skill set — the finishing in small spaces — he is going to be really successful and has been,” Mulcahy said.
The Bears will look to gain even more than they already have from their two incredibly promising freshmen, Masmanidis and Hooper, as they build on the win at Santa Barbara through MPSF play.
Vikram Muller covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].