Cal men’s water polo wins thriller against USC, blows out San Jose State

Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

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Just 10 seconds after USC tied the game in the fourth quarter, Johnny Hooper missed a penalty shot for Cal and subsequently heard the roar from the large crowd of visiting Trojan fans, who could feel the tides turning in their favor. But he was not fazed by the miss. Three minutes later, after Cal had taken the lead back behind a Thomas Agramonte goal, Hooper forced a ball-under turnover and broke away for the game-sealing goal, securing the No. 4 Bears a hard-fought 12-10 victory against No. 3 USC.

Then the Cal fans roared, knowing their team had captured the win after seeing their star freshman attacker raise his fist in exultation.

“I knew on my 5-meter, I hesitated a little bit, and I didn’t go where I wanted to go, and I made sure on my one-on-nobody, I was going to make it go where I wanted it to go — right over his head,” Hooper said.

Hooper’s theme of redemption from his earlier miss resonated with Cal (19-4, 5-1 MPSF) as a whole, which entered Saturday looking to redeem itself after a previous loss to the Trojans (17-4, 5-2 MPSF) in tournament play. Cal also aimed to secure another conference win against San Jose State (3-20, 0-7 MPSF) the next day.

The USC game was tough from the start, as the two teams were knotted at two goals apiece in the first three minutes. But the Bears took their first hold of the game, going up, 5-3, at the end of the first frame behind two goals from Hooper.

USC responded in the second quarter, led by sophomore Lachlan Edwards, who netted one of his four goals after troubling the Bears’ defense, drawing an ejection that led to another goal, which gave the Trojans a 6-5 lead. The Bears wouldn’t back down, and junior Farrel South quickly took back the lead with two goals on consecutive possessions before the teams entered halftime deadlocked at 7.

It was clear that Edwards and his older brother Blake, a junior driver, were being given too many easy opportunities by the Bears’ defense. At halftime, Cal head coach Kirk Everist decided to change his strategy to double-team center and force the ball away from the Edwards brothers.

“I felt like in the second quarter, we weren’t coming back as hard as we needed to. We’re aggressive on our defense, but we were getting extended, and they were sliding guys underneath us and getting isolations,” Everist said. “We wanted to force them to beat us from the perimeter and take away Lachlan and some of their post-up guys causing us trouble in the middle.”

The change worked, and the Bears’ physical defense held the Trojans to only one goal in the third quarter, as opposed to Cal’s three ─ two by freshman Odysseas Masmanidis and another by Hooper. But again, the Trojans fought back to tie the game at 10 with 5:40 remaining, and Cal needed two counterattack opportunities from Agramonte and then Hooper to seal the win.

Sunday’s matchup, however, was nowhere near as challenging for Cal, whose opponent, San Jose State, is winless in conference play this year after reinstating its men’s water polo program just this season after a 34-year absence from the sport. Everist took this opportunity against a weaker opponent to give valuable minutes to his bench. Sophomore attacker J.D. Ratchford enjoyed his opportunity, leading the Bears with five goals en route to a 13-5 victory over the Spartans.

“It’s nice to get to start a different group,” Everist said. “I just played (Colin) Mulcahy and Agramonte for a couple of minutes. Luca (Cupido) didn’t play at all. Those guys logged a lot of minutes yesterday, so it’s nice to see the other guys get a chance.”

Vikram Muller covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].