The biggest story surrounding the Cal women’s water polo team this season is the redshirting of Dora Antal, Anna Illes and Roser Tarrago to train for the Olympics with their respective national teams — Antal and Illes for Hungary and Tarrago for Spain. After the Bears went 4-0 to open the season this weekend, it is clear to fans that their focus should be not on the team’s missing players but rather on the quality of play in the pool and the results on the scoreboard.
Cal opened its season at the Lou Tully Memorial hosted by San Jose State and began with an easy 22-5 victory against Cal State Monterey Bay, which included a first-half shutout of the Otters. Additionally, 14 Cal players got their name on the score sheet, seven of whom were able to put at least two goals in the back of the net. Cal head coach Richard Corso was especially pleased with his team’s defensive effort.
“Sometimes your shot doesn’t go, or sometimes you don’t have the rhythm that day for offense, but there is never an excuse not to play strong, tenacious defense,” Corso said. “The biggest thing for us is to stay consistent, and if we are not having a great offensive day, we can always rely on our defense.”
The Bears’ second game Saturday was significantly more closely contested, but the No. 4 Bears pulled out a 12-8 win against No. 10 Pacific. Senior driver and captain Pippa Saunders led her team from the front, carrying the offensive load against the Tigers and scoring four goals, including one in the Bears’ strong first quarter that put them up 4-1.
Cal continued its success Sunday, first by coasting to a 12-4 win against Sonoma State and then in a hard-fought 7-3 win against CSU Bakersfield. Junior driver Stephanie Mutafyan and senior center Sierra Smiley led the Bears over the Seawolves, each with a hat trick. Against Bakersfield, however, Cal faced its first deficit of the season, going down 2-0 to the Roadrunners within the first five minutes. But the Bears responded promptly and tied the game back up before the end of the period, with goals from sophomore driver Carla Carrega and freshman driver Sofia Rivas. Cal didn’t falter from then on, and another stout defensive performance held Bakersfield to only one goal in the final three quarters.
Entering the weekend, Saunders had noted that the Bears have many offensive threats and that everyone is capable of stepping up. Notably, the Bears got significant contributions from two freshmen ─ Rivas and Sarah Siepker. Siepker started three of the four games and Rivas started the third.
“(Siepker) comes from a strong high school program, and she is an outstanding player at the club level. She has played eight years of very serious water polo, so she was a great pickup,” Corso said. “Rivas, over the last 22 months, has improved dramatically, not only from the perspective of being a high school player but then making the jump to the international level. She has played in two world championships, Pan American games. When you have that kind of a background, your water polo IQ goes way up.”
Siepker and Rivas will be integral figures in filling the void left by Antal, Illes and Tarrago, who led the Bears in scoring for each of the past two seasons.
“We knew that these girls were going to be training full-time for the Olympics. We knew that when we were recruiting them. We knew they were going to be gone, and then our training changed significantly for the team that we have right now,” Corso said. “I was very happy the way we played over the weekend ─ it was a great start for a season.”
Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].