The Cal women’s water polo team headed to the home of rival Stanford this weekend for its toughest tournament of the season, and the team was surrounded by questions of defensive effort. Four tough games of water polo later, the Bears left enemy territory with a taste of sweet victory, and more importantly, yearning for more in the coming months.
Not only did Cal, tied for No. 5, win the tournament, but it did so in a dominating fashion. Not only did the Bears defeat three top-10 opponents, but they did so by answering any questions raised about their defense and holding three opponents to three goals or fewer. And not only did Cal take down the defending national champions and No. 1 team in the nation, Stanford, but they also did so in the home pool of their rivals.
“They’re defending national champions, we beat them in their home pool, and we got the wind in our sails. It’s exciting,” said Cal head coach Richard Corso.
The Bears entered the weekend having not played in two weeks, but despite the extra practice, Cal began the tournament looking like the team that suffered its first loss to Hawaii. In the opening match against No. 12 Pacific, Cal gave up a shocking four goals in the first quarter ─ two from exclusions and one from a penalty ─ which directly contradicted the strong defensive approach preached by Corso all season long.
The Bears led 5-4 after one period, but they were able to calm their erratic defense quickly, holding the Tigers to only four more for the remaining three periods. In the second quarter, Cal’s defense stepped up to the level it expects to play at, and it shut out Pacific while expanding its lead to 9-4 by halftime. The Bears continued their dominance into the second half, and rolled to a 19-8 victory behind hat tricks from junior Stephanie Mutafyan and sophomore Carla Carrega, and two goals from four others.
Cal’s second and third opponents of the weekend, No. 10 UC Irvine and UC Davis — tied for No. 8, respectively — presented notably more difficult defensive challenges for the Bears’ offense to overcome. Cal’s defense, however, maintained its play from the last three quarters against Pacific and led the Bears to two more victories. The Anteaters held the Bears to only one goal in the first period and tied the game at 1-1 early in the second, but then the Bears broke away before halftime, slotting three goals in nearly two minutes to take a 4-1 lead into the break. Similar strong play from the Bears in the second half only allowed one more Irvine goal, and Cal won comfortably, 7-2.
UC Davis, on the other hand, posed its defensive challenge to the Bears in the second half, holding the Bears to one goal, but it made little difference in the final outcome. Cal began the game with five unanswered goals and entered halftime up 5-1. The Aggies stepped up defensively during the second half, but the Bears defense did not allow Davis a comeback, sealing Cal a place in the championship with a 6-3 win.
In the final against the rival Cardinal, Cal found itself down 1-0 after one quarter, but once again, the Bears turned to their defense. Cal held Stanford scoreless for the next two quarters, and one goal by Mutafyan in each quarter propelled the Bears to a 2-1 lead entering the fourth quarter. Carrega expanded the lead to 3-1, and two goals by junior Genevieve Weed sealed the deal. The defense only allowed one more, and Cal took home the championship with a 5-2 victory.
“We are moving forward and getting closer to playing total water polo. More defense, individual and team defense, and finishing ability and reading abilities on offense. We’re getting better. We’re excited about the results,” Corso said. “The girls are really fired up. It was good to beat them, but it was even better to beat them in their home pool.”
Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]