Cal center Emily Loughlin, facing away from goal, elevated high above her defender as she tried to gather position for a pass into set, but she was pulled back down. Then, in one swift motion, Loughlin ducked under her defender while the ball was passed across the pool to her right, turned to receive a perfectly positioned pass and slotted home a goal against the helpless goalie. She calmly swam back to half-tank to restart the game, but the slight smirk in the corner of her mouth expressed her satisfaction.
Loughlin had dominated her defender for her second goal of a hat-trick, putting the Bears up 9-3 as they entered the fourth quarter. In doing so, she knew the game was all but over. This sentiment of domination, however, did not end with Loughlin, but it rather resonated throughout the No. 8 Cal women’s water polo team in its first home game of the season, a 13-4 beat-down of No. 10 San Jose State.
But while the game was rather one-sided as a whole, it certainly did not start that way. The first quarter was closely contested, with Cal taking an early 1-0 lead, but SJSU quickly came back with two goals of its own. The Bears missed scoring opportunities on two early 6-on-5 opportunities. Cal, however, then managed to take a 3-2 lead into the second quarter with two quick goals by sophomore driver Carla Carrega and senior center Sierra Smiley.
“I thought the girls were really excited to play at home ─ we haven’t been home since November ─ and they kind of pushed things a lot,” said Cal coach Richard Corso. “We didn’t have a lot of rhythm on those first three powerplays, but they settled down, got a little tired, and they got their rhythm.”
Those two goals late in the first quarter began an exhibition of physical and tactical dominance over the rest of the game, in which the Bears held the Spartans scoreless for nearly a two-quarter span, along with scoring at least three goals per quarter to consistently increase their lead. Offensively, Cal was led by Carrega and by its two centers, who consistently drew powerplays, many of which the Bears converted following the initial missed opportunities.
“I think, overall, we just really knew that we had to push the counter. We just wanted to make sure that we were wearing them out, because I think our fitness level is pretty strong,” Loughlin said. “So as soon as that happened, things started opening up when we passed the ball really well. Outside shooters gave us some great passes into set.”
Additionally, the Bears noticeably increased their defensive pressure in the second half, playing a press as early as half-tank on some possessions and creating numerous counterattack opportunities from turnovers. This allowed them to essentially secure the victory by the end of three quarters and give some valuable playing time to younger players.
The dominant defense had been missing from Cal’s play in recent losses to Hawaii, Michigan and UC Davis, but this weekend’s victory over the Spartans seemed to fix that. The successful offensive powerplay conversion and a reemergence of the stifling defense will go a long way for the Bears. If Cal intends to compete for the conference and national championships in the coming months, it will need more performances like its exceptional display against SJSU.
Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]