As the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team (21-5, 7-2 MPSF) prepares for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Playoffs in Los Angeles, it will venture into deeper waters. No longer will the team have the luxury of being able to cruise to victory or pull off a close comeback — in other words, it’s crunch time and the Bears must ensure that as the pressure mounts, they don’t drown.
The importance of the tournament cannot be over exaggerated: The top team out of the MPSF playoffs wins an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament and gets to contend for a national championship. Because the final two spots in the tournament are determined by the national rankings, the second and third-place teams in the MPSF tournament have a good chance of also making the NCAA tournament. Cal enters the tournament ranked third of 10 teams, only topped by UCLA and Pacific — both teams that the Bears have fallen to in close one-point losses. This puts Cal in a good position to move on and continue its season on the national level.
In their first game Friday, the Bears will face No. 6 UCSB (16-9, 5-5 MPSF). The Bears have gone up against the Gauchos twice this season, coming out both times with 12-5 victories. UCSB is led by senior attacker Derek Shoemaker and sophomore attacker Shane Hauschild, who have combined to score a third of their team’s goals.
The Gauchos have had a tumultuous year, going back and forth between wins and losses throughout the course of the season. They have struggled to begin games at full force — allowing opponents to narrowly outscore them 103-102 in the first half — and tend to rely on their third quarter scoring to bring in wins. If the Bears’ top scorers, freshmen Johnny Hooper and Odysseas Masmanidis, can bring their team some early goals, Cal should easily be able to come out with a win.
“We’ve had a lot of success on the offensive end with our freshman group and we expect them to continue to play at that level,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist.
If it moves on, Cal will face the winner of the game played by No. 2 Pacific (22-3, 8-1 MPSF) and the winner of the game between No. 7 UC Irvine and San Jose State. Assuming Pacific is able to live up to its ranking, the Bears will most likely challenge the Tigers on Saturday. Cal recently lost a close game to Pacific, 11-10, in the Bears’ home pool and will be looking to redeem themselves after having given up a three-goal lead going into the fourth quarter.
Pacific has an affinity for making comebacks against the Bears — in their three meetings thus far this season, two of them have gone into overtime with Cal pulling out narrow wins in both instances. This time, though, the Bears cannot stand to allow these tournament matches to go into overtime if they hope to conserve their energy and succeed in the final rounds.
Cal learned many lessons from its most recent fall to the Tigers — most importantly, that they cannot afford to allow lapses in its defense against top-tiered teams. As they attempt to find redemption against Pacific, the Bears must focus on shutting down the Tigers’ offensive leaders Ben Stevenson, Devon Thumwood and Alex Obert.
If Cal beats Pacific, it will most likely face No. 1 UCLA (25-0, 9-0). Having lost to the Bruins three times this season in close matches that left the Bears out of sorts, Cal will need to dig deep and come up with a comprehensive game plan in order to overcome junior goalie Garrett Danner and an undefeated UCLA team.
“We pretty much understand what kind of team we are and what our strengths and weaknesses are and we feel like we can continue to play our way and be successful,” Everist said.
Sophie Goethals covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]