Just as the weather has been clearing up following a wet winter, the Cal women’s water polo team is navigating its toughest storm of the season. Last week, a narrow loss to No. 4 Arizona State dropped the Bears to No. 5 in the nation for the first time this season. This weekend, Cal attempted to end its two-game conference losing streak against a star-studded Stanford team that came into the annual Big Splash on a four-game winning streak.
The Bears (13-6) were without injured junior defender Kindred Paul for the third straight game. Against the No. 2 Cardinal (16-1), Cal suffered an 8-2 beatdown at the hands of a team that features seven All-Americans and two Olympians.
“It’s really hard to play without (Paul) because she is our primary center defender,” said redshirt junior Dora Antal. “She’s as important on offense as she is on defense. We really miss her outside shots.”
Stanford freshman Makenzie Fischer opened the scoring two minutes into the first quarter. After two more goals from redshirt senior Maggie Steffens, Cal found itself in an early 3-0 hole that it never climbed out of. Fischer and Steffens, the Cardinal’s two Olympians, scored three goals each to anchor the offense.
The Bears did not score their first goal until halfway through the second quarter. Senior Emily Loughlin was able to draw a foul and Antal took advantage of the ensuing six-on-five to make the score 4-1.
Stanford tacked on three more in the third quarter to take an impressive 8-1 lead, and another goal by Antal with 1:03 left in the period gave the game its final score.
Throughout the game, it appeared that Cal players were plagued by a rare indecisiveness on the offensive end. Whereas the Cardinal zipped quick and precise passes across the pool, the Bears’ offense was rather stagnant. Ball movement was lacking, and, at times, Cal players seemed reluctant to shoot when an opening presented itself.
“I feel like when we were about to finish situations, for example the six-on-fives, we weren’t patient enough,” Antal said. “I feel like at the very last moment, we just lost focus, and we just couldn’t finish.
When you combine the Bears’ offensive inefficiencies with Gabby Stone’s dominating 15-save performance in the cage, it is easy to see why Cal turned out its lowest scoring game of the season.
To make matters worse for the Bears, the Stanford defenders were equally as stifling. Every time a Cal player held the ball, they were swarmed by a Cardinal with hands up, ready to contest the shot. Many Cal offensive possessions turned up empty not because of saves by Stone, but rather from deflections by Stanford defenders.
In a rough game, one positive takeaway for the Bears is that they also played solid defense throughout. Eight goals is the least the Cardinal has scored in a game this season.
After starting the season with a promising 12-1 record, Cal has been struggling, losing five of its last six. The talent is there, but if the Bears cannot execute on offense and step up their game against superior opponents, they won’t be able to weather the storm and make a big splash in the upcoming MPSF and NCAA tournaments.
Leo Liu covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].