After a blistering start to the season brought the Cal women’s water polo team to a ranking as high as No. 3, many people thought the Bears to be one of the most formidable teams in the nation. Recent results, however, suggest that this form might have been no more than a fairytale run to open the season. No. 6 Cal has dropped three of its four games in conference play ─ including a 13-5 loss two weeks ago to rival Stanford, its worst of the year ─ and six of its last 12 overall.
As the Bears sit fifth in the MPSF rankings, their best chance of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament would be to win the MPSF Tournament on May 1. In addition, based on other teams’ records, the two conference games to close out the regular season this weekend will not allow the Bears to move up or down in the conference standings. These games ─ at No. 1 USC on Friday and against No. 24 CSU Bakersfield at home Saturday ─ will serve as a method for the Bears to gauge their performance entering postseason play. But if Cal is to win the MPSF Tournament, victories this weekend would certainly help restart their Cinderella story.
Cal began its season with questions surrounding the team about who would fill the offensive void left by Dora Antal, Roser Tarrago and Anna Illes, who redshirted the season to train with their respective Olympic teams. In the meantime, Cal has tried numerous options offensively to counteract the loss of its three leading scorers from last season. And while it has been both powered by consistent play at center from junior Emily Loughlin and pleasantly surprised with the quick rise of sophomore driver Carla Carrega, the offensive threat was never the key to the Bears’ early-season success.
Until the recent string of losses, the Bears’ defense ranked second in the MPSF in goals allowed per game. They held both Stanford and UCLA to their lowest single-game offensive outputs of the season, also limiting opponents to five goals or fewer in 16 of their 26 contests. In the loss to Stanford two weeks ago, however, the Bears’ defense collapsed, allowing goals in various fashions — on the fastbreak, from 2 meters and also outside shots against a frontcourt defense — and most notably, an astounding seven goals from nine powerplay opportunities.
But Cal head coach Richard Corso made note of the importance to immediately direct attention toward the USC game and not dwell on the disaster that had just occurred.
“We get a day to recover. And then we’re back at it on Monday. It’s all about ‘SC. Going down to ‘SC, competing, winning the game there. The biggest deal of what we want to do is this now: we got to have some momentum going into MPSF,” Corso said after the loss.
And if momentum is a real thing in sports, the Bears could certainly use the emotional benefits of a big win against USC as they head into the postseason. They have the ability to score brilliant goals on offense, and their defense has proven itself time and time again this season, but the key is piecing everything together.
As far as the postseason is concerned, Cal has one final opportunity to qualify for NCAAs. Its fate lies only on its MPSF tournament performance next weekend, so this weekend fans should see a Bears team playing with nothing to lose. By no means should an upset of the Trojans be expected, but this weekend will allow Cal to try new things and take more risks in its goal to play its best on both ends of the pool. In a season full of flux, for two less meaningful games, there is a brief lull of stability for the Bears. Maybe they’ll take advantage and surprise us all once again.
Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].