No. 5 Cal women’s water polo set to compete at Stanford Invitational

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The Cal women’s water polo team had a rare break from the action of a grueling season, getting last weekend off. The Bears used their extra week to dwell on and learn from an underwhelming performance at the Santa Barbara Invitational tournament the week before.

This weekend, the Bears will play at the Stanford Invitational ─ in their third of six tournaments in 2016 before opening league play in mid-March ─ and the competition will only get stiffer. Cal, tied for No. 5 nationally, is set to play No. 12 Pacific, No. 10 UC Irvine, UC Davis, which is tied for No. 8, and a fourth to-be-determined opponent this weekend in Palo Alto.

The Bears enter the weekend having dropped a spot from their No. 4 ranking after a 10-9 loss to then-No. 7 Hawaii. That loss, in addition to a 9-8 overtime win against then-No. 13 UC Santa Barbara, exposed clear flaws in Cal’s defense. The Bears rebounded the next day, however, to handily defeat two relatively weaker opponents, then-No. 17 Long Beach State and unranked Bakersfield, but this weekend will serve as the true test to see if Cal can solidify its defense, limit careless errors and ultimately hold its own against significantly tougher opponents.

“There’s no question that we can score goals, but clearly in the last tournament that we went to, our defense was suspect, and we have been working a great deal on not only our individual defense, but our team defense,” Cal head coach Richard Corso said. “The two biggest things that I’ve been emphasizing are taking pride in individual defense and taking pride with ball skills, like good passes to the center forward. We’ve put in a lot, and I’ve seen a significant amount of improvement.”

With tougher opponents coming for the Bears this weekend, Corso was especially emphatic about the necessity to play each game, especially this weekend’s first true test of the season, with the effort a team should give entering an NCAA championship.

“The biggest thing for us is that we can’t take people lightly,” Corso said. “You can’t do that when you’re Berkeley, because you got a target painted on your back already. You’ve got to come in and you have to bring your ‘A’ game, or as close to your ‘A’ game as possible, but you can’t go through the motions.”

Cal has tremendous respect for the Stanford Invitational, and in particular the strength of the teams that show up each year and make for a championship atmosphere, which includes a tough schedule with four matches in a two-day span.

This weekend, however, will serve as more than a tough atmosphere for the Bears; it will also help determine if this season’s Cal team belongs in the Big Four of women’s water polo at all. Already having dropped out of the top four spots, the Bears have quickly fallen behind Stanford and UCLA, No. 1 and No. 2 respectively ─ which have both begun the season 4-0 ─ and No. 3 USC, which opens its season this weekend. If Cal can win its first three matches of the tournament, it will likely find itself up against the Cardinal in the championship match.

“It serves for us that we’re approaching it as if it were a national championship,” Corso said. “The way it was set up, the combinations, things like that, we’re going to put our best foot forward. We’re just approaching it as if it were NCAAs. We have to. That’s the reason we keep going back to this tournament.”

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