Three points were all that kept the Cal men’s water polo team (24-7, 7-2 MPSF) from the final round of the NCAA championships in December 2015.
2015 was the first time the Bears returned to the tournament since 2010, and despite second seed placement at its start, they were determined to win it all. In the semi-finals, however, they lost to rival Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, or MPSF, team USC.
The Collegiate Water Polo Association, or CWPA, preseason rankings reflect the tournament’s final results. Cal is currently ranked third, following 2016 NCAA champion UCLA and runner-up USC in the first and second spots, respectively. Fellow MPSF team Stanford is ranked fifth. Since the first NCAA tournament in 1969, these four MPSF teams have traded NCAA championship wins. Only five of the 46 matches — 1970, 1979, 1982, 1989 and 1997 — ended with other collegiate teams taking home the trophy.
The Bears have more pride riding on this season that they have in those past. Come December, the NCAA tournament is going to be held in Berkeley, at the Spieker Aquatics Complex. Given the skill and past success of Cal’s current players, there is no reason it should not participate in its home pool.
There are a few noteworthy changes this season. At the league level, the MPSF has added a fifth team, Penn State Behrend. This will not have any impact on Cal’s schedule, as the Lions will not participate in the conference’s regular season schedule. The team will, however, compete at the MPSF tournament at UCLA at the end of the season.
The other notable modifications this season come in the form of NCAA-wide rule changes. In February, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Committee agreed to a proposal that heightens the impact of penalties received by players during games. According to the new rules, referees may remove a player from play for the remainder of the game if, in that game, he or she collects a second penalty after a minor act of misconduct. This change is intended to provide players with a greater disincentive to commit penalty-triggering actions. They also agreed to a new rule that suspends any player who is thrown out of a game for misconduct three or more times in the same season. That player will be required to sit out one game each time.
The Bears are facing changes at the team level as well. They are losing two key players whose shoes the team will have to work hard to fill. All-Americans Thomas Agramonte and Colin Mulcahy were more valuable to the Bears than their lengthy lists of in-pool contributions. They were both captains their senior year, so Cal is losing their leadership and guidance as well.
Despite Agramonte and Mulcahy’s exit, the Bears have a strong lineup of returning players. Thirteen total are coming back, including All-American goalkeeper senior Lazar Andric and two All-American sophomores, attacker Johnny Hooper and utilityman Odysseas Masmanidis. Both are expected to have a strong season. Junior defender Nicholas Carniglia spent the spring training with Team USA and will undoubtedly be an asset for the team.
Also returning is junior Luca Cupido, who played all 31 games last year and proved himself to be one of Cal’s best players. He was also Cal’s team leader in assists and steals before spending this summer competing with the USA National Team in Rio for the Olympics. In the team’s five games, he contributed four goals, three assists, six steals and five blocks. The experience he gained playing at such a high level and with top tier players will likely have a positive impact on his play this season.
The Bears start their season Friday, Sept. 9 at the Princeton Invitational, where they play Princeton, George Washington, St. Francis and Johns Hopkins.
Sarah Goldzweig covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]