Two giants of the pool will collide this Saturday as No. 3 Cal men’s water polo travels down the California coast to meet in-state rival, No. 2 UCLA. The Bruins and the Bears have taken each NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship over the last three seasons, with Cal winning a banner in 2016 and UCLA earning the honor the two previous seasons. Expectations can’t be high enough for this clash featuring a few multiple Olympians.
UCLA defeated Cal earlier this season, handing the Bears’ their single loss of the year. The match was a hotly contested struggle that included two overtimes and a one-goal victory. Neither team ever gained more than a two-goal lead and Cal’s effort fell just short despite a dramatic game-tying Cal goal to force OT. The loss still stings for the Bears, as it keeps the Bruins narrowly ahead in the rankings.
A large part of Cal’s offensive production came from leader and senior captain Luca Cupido, who scored four of Cal’s eight goals on twelve shots. On the other side, the Bruins displayed a much more balanced attack in which seven players each contributed at least one goal.
Senior goalkeeper Kevin Le Vine made seventeen saves that game and has continued to play at a high level, making this season’s MPSF record of 19 saves against UC Irvine last weekend. The game against UCI was one of two emphatic Cal wins over the weekend. The Bears handled the Anteaters 18-8, quieting a team that had beaten UCLA in early October. Cal continued to dominate that weekend when they sent San Jose State home with a stinging 20-6 loss.
In recognition of his 11-goal performance over the weekend, Luca Cupido earned the title of “MPSF Player of the Week.” On top of the goals, Cupido racked up six steals, six assists, four ejections earned and a block. He’ll once again be asked to stuff the stat line against UCLA.
The Bears need their momentum to continue into their Saturday morning game against the Bruins, the first of their final four-game stretch. The winner of the game will grab the second place spot behind No. 1 USC as the postseason approaches. With USC, UCLA and Cal in the top three spots of the MPSF rankings, it looks as though these three teams will also take the top three spots in the NCAA championships, just as they did last year.
However, before the season ends, Cal will play the Trojans, as UCLA will as well. With three games between the top tier teams in collegiate men’s water polo still to come, a lot can change before the NCAA tournament takes place.
The Bears have their work cut out for them before they can start thinking about the postseason and going back-to-back, though. Cal will need to focus on taking care of business week by week with special emphasis against the Bruins. The Bears have dropped three of their last four against UCLA and will need to put together a next-level effort to redeem their last loss. Regardless, every matchup between the two has been incredibly tight; it’d be a shock not to see this one come down to the wire.
Armen Aprahamian covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].