The Cal men’s water polo team has had a bumpy season. It hasn’t won any of the three single-elimination tournaments in which it has played. It gave up six fourth quarter goals to lose 11-10 to Pacific when the teams were tied for No. 2 nationally. In a sport where only six teams play in the NCAA tournament, with a maximum of three from one conference, qualifying is no easy feat. But the Bears have surged at the right time, and with late season conference victories over USC and Stanford, and with a conference tournament victory over Pacific, they have secured the second seed in the NCAA tournament.
Before this team had even played a single game this year, Cal head coach Kirk Everist had his eyes set on this moment. The Bears had not been selected for the NCAA tournament since December 2010, when they lost in the final to USC, but Everist felt confident from the start of the season that his team could get a bid.
“Our goal is to get to NCAAs and we have the talent level that if we get there, I think we can beat anybody,” Everist said Sept. 1.
This weekend he will find out if he has indeed built a team that can win it all. Cal (23-6, 7-2 MPSF) will play its last two games of the season Saturday and Sunday. The team’s second seeding has it in the semifinals awaiting the winner of the USC and Claremont McKenna-Harvey Mudd-Scripps Colleges game. The other semifinal will feature undefeated, top-ranked UCLA and the winner of Princeton and UCSD.
The Bears will most likely first face USC, which they have played twice this season. The Trojans won their first matchup, the third-place game of the NorCal Invitational tournament, but the Bears won the conference matchup in October. USC is led offensively by two brothers, junior driver Blake Edwards — who has 63 goals this season — and sophomore two-meter player Lachlan Edwards. Team USA goalie, sophomore McQuin Baron anchors the Trojans defensively.
If Cal can defeat USC in their third matchup this season, they will run into the defending national and MPSF champions UCLA. The two teams would meet in the championship match in what would be their fifth encounter this season. The Bruins are the only team that the Bears have played and not defeated this season. The most recent encounter was a 12-11 overtime loss in the final of the MPSF tournament.
“We have got to be a little bit better at stopping them on the defensive end. And I’m sure they’re saying the same thing. There were a lot of opportunities both ways. There are very good players, and sometimes it is hard to stop guys. I know we’ll be ready to play,” Everist said.
UCLA is led by the 2015 MPSF Player of the Year, goalkeeper Garrett Danner, who recorded a career-high 21 saves against the Bears in the MPSF Championship match. Offensively, junior attacker Ryder Roberts has scored 54 goals this season to lead the Bruins.
Cal freshman attacker Johnny Hooper was named 2015 MPSF Newcomer of the Year for his 69 season goals — second most in the MPSF. Hooper joins two of his teammates — senior attacker Colin Mulcahy and freshman utility player Odysseas Masmanidis on the All-MPSF Second team. In addition, Cal is led offensively by sophomore attacker and Team USA member Luca Cupido, who earned 2015 All-MPSF First team honors. On the defensive end, Cal goalkeeper Lazar Andric earned an All-MPSF Honorable Mention.
The young Bears’ roster has shown promise all season, but Cal has never gotten over the wall that the Bruins have placed in front of it. The Bears have faced many tests all season long, but now the time has come for them to truly prove themselves.
Vikram Muller covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]