No. 3 Cal women’s water polo faces setback at UC Irvine Invitational

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Entering the weekend, the Cal women’s water polo team (15-3) was debatably the hottest team in the nation, posting nine consecutive victories — including one against former-No. 1 Stanford — and rising to the No. 3 spot in the nation. But this weekend at the UC Irvine Invitational ─ a tournament with a field of 16 teams, all ranked in the CWPA top-25 ─ the Bears were hit hard by a dose of reality. Just because they have been able to string together impressive victories, it doesn’t mean they are the best team in the nation, and they are certainly not unbeatable.

After a quick disposal of No. 17 UCSB ─ in which the Bears limited the Gauchos to one first-half goal and ultimately built an 8-1 lead before allowing three more to win 8-4 ─ Cal looked ready to make a run toward the championship with all the defensive prowess that it had displayed over the past nine games.

No. 6 Hawaii, however, ruined the Bears’ plans for success as it handed Cal its second loss of the season ─ both coming to the Rainbow Wahine ─ and the Bears were forced to settle for a fifth-place finish, at best. The bleeding didn’t stop there, however, and Cal dropped another game, 7-5 to Michigan, tied for No. 7, on Sunday morning and was forced to play No. 5 UC Davis in the seventh-place match. The Bears finished the tournament with a 9-6 defeat of the Aggies.

“We had two bad games. The bottom line was that we just didn’t play defense. We didn’t play the defense that we’re capable of playing, like we did at the Stanford tournament, like we have been. It has been the cornerstone of the team all year long, and we just didn’t do it,” said Cal head coach Richard Corso. “To be quite frank, I didn’t anticipate that because our defense has been really carrying us.”

In the five games prior to the tournament in Irvine, the Bears had held opponents to five goals or fewer, including three goals or fewer in four of those contests. This weekend, however, the defense allowed six goals twice. The defense that only three weeks prior had held the nation’s top team to just two goals ─ the Cardinal’s lowest single-game offensive output in 11 years ─ was nowhere to be found for the last three of the four games played this weekend.

But defense was not the only thing missing from the Bears’ game. Offensive output, which the Bears have prided themselves regarding their versatility, was also lacking in the two losses. Throughout the season, fans and critics have been looking to see when the Bears would start to miss the offensive production of their three leading scorers from last season ─ Roser Tarrago, Dora Antal and Anna Illes ─ and until this weekend, it hadn’t appeared to be a problem. But tough defense from Hawaii and Michigan forced the Bears into some uncomfortable situations, from which the current lineup couldn’t recover.

“They tried forcing some things on offense that they didn’t do normally ─ sometimes that backfires on you and then you are playing a little more D than you wanted to ─ so it was tough,” Corso said. “At times, we were getting great looks, and the shots didn’t drop. And then, I think, when we started pressing, we got a little anxious ─ sometimes you get away from your game ─ and we made mistakes offensively.”

Ultimately, this weekend’s losses should serve the Bears as learning experiences. Their minds should not solely focus on playing top-three teams but rather on being able to win every game. They certainly have the talent to do so, but unless they can limit mistakes in their cohesive team play on both ends of the pool, the holes in the Bears offense will be exposed by more opponents in the future, just as they were in Irvine.

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