No. 3 Cal women’s water polo prepares to take on familiar foes in Irvine Invitational

Rachael Garner/File

In what is starting to become a seemingly routine occurrence, the Cal women’s water polo team might play No. 12 Pacific this weekend. For anyone who has not been following very closely, the two teams have met three times already, at three of the four tournaments that the No. 3 Bears have attended this season, and all three matches have been wins for Cal — albeit with different scorelines.

Familiar foes might end up being the theme of the weekend for the Bears — who travel south to the UC Irvine Invitational — as they have already defeated their first opponent, No. 17 UCSB, once this season. They have also come up against both the Tigers and No. 6 Hawaii, their potential second round opponents. Additionally, if they win those two matches Saturday, they certainly have a possibility of seeing No. 4 Stanford in the final or third-place match. The Bears notably defeated their bitter rivals in their own pool in the final of the Stanford Invitational three weeks ago.

Cal (13-1) has been on a roll as of late, winning nine consecutive matches with the last five all by holding opponents to five goals or fewer. But if the Bears need any greater motivation for playing a familiar opponent than their desire to prove themselves as the nation’s best team, they have the chance to avenge their only loss of the season, a 10-9 defeat to Hawaii. Cal head coach Richard Corso insisted, however, that his team is only looking towards the match against UCSB, and not dying for a chance to see Hawaii instead of Pacific.

“We got one game and that’s Santa Barbara,” Corso said. “You tell your team a lot of things, and one thing that I hope they have really listened to is that we take it one quarter, one possession at a time. You can’t be thinking about the next round. That’s wasted energy. You have to take care of yourself, and if you don’t take care of yourself then you’re in somebody else’s hands.”

Aside from the close loss to the Rainbow Wahine in January, the Bears have controlled their own destiny this season by dominating opponents with their stifling defense. After Cal held then-No. 1 Stanford to two goals to win the Stanford Invitational — the Cardinal’s lowest single-game offensive output in 11 years — it cemented its status as one of the strongest teams in the nation this season. This weekend, the field of opponents is even stronger than last time at Stanford, with all 16 teams being ranked in the top-20.

“There’s no question. We have a bigger target on our back ─ you win the Stanford tournament? You beat Stanford? ─ I’m sure everyone will be gunning for us,” Corso said. “From the perspective of it having basically every team in the country in the top 20 there, it’s much more difficult than Stanford (Invitational) or even the MPSF or the NCAA tournament.”

The Bears’ defense ranks second in the MPSF, 4.79 goals per game, just behind USC’s 4.0, and it is anchored by a unique scheme with the two goalkeepers, junior Madeline Trabucco and freshman Madison Tagg.

“I coach the goalkeepers a little bit different than the rest of the country,” Corso said. “I really believe in competition at that position, and we have two very good goalies. It keeps our shooters sharp at practice, and we have a little bit different look in the goal with each goalkeeper. When you have two good goalkeepers at that one position, why not use them?”

Leading the Bears from the back against the strongest group of teams in the nation, Cal’s two goalies will have to be on top of their games for Cal to add to its silverware in Irvine.

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