The No. 6 Cal women’s water polo team needed to win the MPSF Tournament in order to auto-qualify for the NCAA Tournament. A loss in the final would have given it strong consideration for a bid, but the Bears didn’t even make it that far. After a strong 4-3 quarterfinal victory over No. 4 Arizona State, Cal dropped consecutive matches and had to settle for fourth place. It lost 6-5 in the semifinal to No. 1 USC and then 7-5 to No. 2 UCLA in the third-place match. The Trojans ended up claiming the championship with an 8-5 victory over No. 3 Stanford.
Cal (21-10, 2-4 MPSF) opened the tournament as the fifth seed Friday against fourth-seed ASU with a place in the semifinals at stake. The Bears were looking forward to this game not only because of their urgent need of a strong tournament performance, but also because they had painful memories of the last time they faced the Sun Devils. In early April, ASU beat Cal 7-6 in a second sudden death overtime period in what was surely the most physically and emotionally grinding defeat of the season for the Bears.
This time around, the Sun Devils took first blood at the end of the first quarter, but the Bears were quick to respond, with Genevieve Weed equalizing for Cal three minutes into the second period. The game was highlighted by strong defense and equally impressive goalkeeping, with goalies on both sides making numerous saves. Mia Rycraw had 14 for the Sun Devils, while Cal goalkeepers Madeline Trabucco and Madison Tagg, who split playing time, combined for 11. The Bears shut out the Sun Devils in the second and third quarters, and a goal from sophomore Carla Carrega at the end of the third gave Cal a 2-1 lead entering the fourth. ASU was able to score two goals in the fourth, but Cal captain Pippa Saunders willed her team to victory. She scored two in the period, including the game-winner after the Sun Devils had tied the game at three.
On Saturday, the Bears ran into another familiar foe, the well-rested Trojans, who had earned a quarterfinal bye with their top ranking. The extra rest, however, might have been a curse rather than a blessing for USC, who struggled to get any first-half offensive rhythm going against a highly motivated Bears defense. Cal held the Trojans to their lowest offensive output of the season, but USC put forth a powerful second half. Cal took a 5-3 lead in the second quarter but allowed another goal just before halftime. On the first possession of the third quarter, USC scored on a penalty shot to tie the game. The Trojans scored one more midway through the third, and both defenses held the other team scoreless in the fourth. Notably, Cal finished 0 for 7 on powerplay opportunities.
Despite not being in the championship match, a win Sunday would have certainly helped the Bears case for an NCAA bid, but the Bruins were in the running for that same bid and came out fighting. Midway through the second quarter, the game was tied at two, but UCLA rattled off three consecutive scoring possessions to close the first half and effectively seal the win.
Considering the form that the Bears had been in entering the tournament — dropping four of six conference games — the losses to the Trojans and Bruins should not be surprising to most fans. And while Cal didn’t accomplish its ultimate goal of winning the MPSF Championship, the victory over ASU may prove crucial. While USC, UCLA and Stanford are almost certainly going to get bids to the NCAA tournament, a fourth MPSF selection would be between Cal and ASU. The win over the Sun Devils along with decent performances against USC and UCLA could prove to be the Bears’ saving grace come Monday night when the bracket is announced.
Vikram Muller covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]