In what was arguably Cal’s most poetically beautiful play of the season, Cal senior captain Pippa Saunders received the ball on the left side of the goal on a powerplay opportunity. She passed it to senior Molly Quinn, who then crisply passed it to junior Genevieve Weed. Weed instantly returned the ball to Quinn who fired a touch pass back to Saunders. Saunders then threw the ball across the face of the cage to fellow senior Brooke Vowell on the right side. Vowell fired near post and into the back of the net. The ball never hit the water in this brief sequence, and the three seniors swam back to half-tank with bright smiles, playing together one final time in their home pool.
And while the No. 6 Bears (20-8, 2-4 MPSF) did more than enough to please their home fans in a 13-3 trouncing of No. 24 CSU Bakersfield (13-19, 0-6) on Saturday, that wasn’t the only emotional performance they endured this weekend. On Friday, Cal dropped a hard-fought battle, 11-6, to No. 1 USC (21-0, 6-0) in Los Angeles. With a victory on their own senior day, the Trojans completed their third undefeated season in school history.
The two games had no real effect on the Bears’ standing for postseason purposes, so they headed into the weekend with the simple goal of giving full effort in two dramatic matches — first against the best team in the nation and then in a final home contest.
The Trojans came out firing and took a quick 2-0 lead in the first three minutes. But Saunders wouldn’t let her team be swept away so easily, equalizing on the Bears’ next possession. Two more times through the first half, the Trojans took two-goal leads, and both times, Saunders answered back, completing a first-half hat-trick. It appeared as if Cal would give USC — and its undefeated season — a run for its money, but the last seconds of the first half shattered any of those thoughts.
The Bears had just brought the deficit to 4-3 when the Trojans scored on a powerplay with 12 seconds remaining in the half and again in transition with two seconds remaining after a Cal offensive foul. Saunders picked up her second exclusion early in the third quarter and had to move to the bench, and in the meantime, USC scored two more goals to effectively put the game away.
“We were out of sorts in the frontcourt offense. We’re within striking distance of them and then in 12 seconds they score two goals on us. That kind of set the tone, and then we were scrambling,” said Cal head coach Richard Corso. “The one thing I will say is that I loved our energy. I loved how physical we played.”
It was evident Saturday, however, that Cal took some of that energy into a strong start against Bakersfield. The Bears fed the ball into center early and often, with junior Emily Loughlin and senior Sierra Smiley each scoring in the first quarter. Throughout the game, the Roadrunners played with single coverage defensively on Loughlin and Smiley, and the Bears took full advantage. Cal’s centers combined for seven goals — four for Smiley and a Loughlin hat-trick.
Loughlin scored her second as the Bears took a commanding 5-1 lead into halftime, but it was the Bears’ trademark defense that was most noticeable, shutting the Roadrunners out during the second quarter. Cal exploded for five goals in the third, and Corso made sure to use the fourth for his seniors to play together. With 6:38 remaining, he called a timeout to pull starting goalie Madison Tagg in favor of senior Kathleen Menz. She, along with Saunders, Vowell, Smiley and Quinn, closed out the regular season in front of a raucous home crowd.
“It’s pretty surreal. I’ve been playing water polo since I was 8 or 9, so this is pretty much it for me after this,” Saunders said. “It’s a lot of emotions, but at the same time, it’s a whole lot of fun. We’re just trying to finish the season really hard.”
Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].