Sunny Southern California and a tournament featuring 14 of the top-20 ranked teams. Sounds like the perfect conditions for water polo.
This weekend, the No. 1 Cal men’s water polo team (8-0) will be playing in the MPSF Pacific Invitational against some of the top competition in the NCAA. The Bears’ first game will be Friday against unranked Air Force. This should be an easy win for Cal and a good game to help it warm up for the rest of the tournament.
This tournament will be the first true test for the Bears, with the other top four teams — No. 2 USC, No. 3 Stanford and No. 4 UCLA — all competing as well.
“I think (the focus) is going to have to be the defensive side (that steps up),” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “We’re still trying to find our identity in what we do best and developing the goalkeepers. So, I think it’s going to be a defensive mindset this week. I don’t think we’re going to struggle consistently on offense that much. We’ll find ways to score goals and to be aggressive on that end of the pool. We just have to have a full commitment defensively from everybody to get to where we want to go as a team.”
With all those high-profile offenses, it certainly will have to be the defense that separates the Bears. Assuming that the Bears will win Friday, they will most likely face No. 8 Pepperdine on Saturday morning. The two played each other just last weekend, with Cal barely coming out on top. This time around, the Bears should play much better against the Waves for an easier win after knowing their opponents tendencies.
Defeating Pepperdine would probably put Cal up against the Bruins on Saturday afternoon. Last year at the MPSF tournament, Cal placed second, losing to UCLA 10-7 in the finals.
But the last time the two faced was in the NCAA semifinals, where the Bears were finally able to beat UCLA 10-8 after having lost to the Bruins three more times that season. This will be the most challenging team Cal will face. With a historically strong water polo program and a lost chance of winning the NCAA title, it can be assured the Bruins won’t be looking to lose to the Bears again.
If the Bears survive UCLA, then USC will be the favorites to meet them in the final. Last season, the Trojans improved exponentially toward the end of the season, only faltering in the finals against a powerful Cal team with a lot of heart. Still, the talent on USC is impressive. Having 10 seniors on the roster, the Trojans possess the experience to match the Bears. With senior Luca Cupido’s 2016 Olympic teammate McQuin Baron in goal, Blake and Lachlan Edwards, Matteo Morelli and James Walters all back for their last season — assuming that the two meet — USC could give Cal a run for its money.
The tournament will be a good opportunity for the Bears to face the competition that they will most likely meet again in the postseason. While it’s obviously best not to lose at all, it’s better to lose now than in the finals, when it matters most.
Taylor Choe covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]