For many students, this Saturday marks the beginning of spring break, a time of relaxation in the middle of the semester. The No. 4 Cal women’s water polo team, however, will get no such rest in the midst of its heated conference schedule, as it takes on No. 6 Arizona State (17-4) at home in its third conference game of the season.
The Bears (13-4) have been reeling a bit lately. After starting the season 11-1, Cal has only won two of its last five matches. While one of those victories was a 10-4 romp against the same ASU team that they will soon meet, the Bears nonetheless face a tough challenge this weekend if they want to build some momentum heading into the final stretch of the season.
ASU has been red hot, storming into Berkeley with a five-game winning streak that features three wins against top-25 opponents. Its best players have also been playing well recently, no doubt stepping up their games in anticipation of the MPSF championship coming up at the end of the season.
On offense, the Sun Devils boast two of the top scorers in the MPSF. Junior Lena Mihailovic, who had a five-goal game against No. 22 CSU Bakersfield last weekend, is tied for 8th in the conference with 1.86 goals per game this season. Senior Alkistis Benekou is next on the list at 1.81 goals per game, and she too had a great game last week, netting a whopping seven goals against the University of La Verne.
In its previous match at UCLA, Cal had trouble generating consistent offense because it was missing four key players due to injury. To make matters worse, the Bears also faced a quality goalie in Carlee Kapana, who ranks second in the MPSF in goals allowed per game. Against ASU, Cal will have to get through another strong keeper in redshirt junior Mia Rycraw.
After leading the MPSF in saves last season, Rycraw currently ranks 3rd in the conference in that category. Rycraw anchors a stout ASU defense that has only conceded 5.86 goals per game. To come away with a victory, the Bears need all hands on deck, especially if some of their players will be unavailable again this week.
“Injuries are a part of the game,” said Cal freshman Emma Wright. “Whether we have those players or not, we just have to push forward as a team. That showed in our game against UCLA how, in that first half, we were right there (with them), and it got away from us in the end. Against Arizona State, an important thing to focus on is just playing our game and not letting that get away from us. Pressing hard and attacking hard on offense is going to be important for us.”
If the Bears are going to be without some of its key players again, Wright’s contributions will be much needed. Wright is an integral part of Cal’s balanced offense, which features four players that have found the back of the net more than 20 times this season. The Bears need to continue to share the ball well and remain disciplined on defense if they wish to kick off spring break, or at least their practice-filled version of it, on a high note.
Leo Liu covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].