Once a scene of a grazing cattle and open farmland, the Stanford family farm is now the university’s campus. Still colloquially referred to as “The Farm”, the campus today, now home to the upper-echelon university, has started to feel more and more like the bustling cities that surround it. To a visiting No. 1 Cal men’s water polo team, it sure felt like a city — heartbreak city, that is. On Thursday afternoon, No. 3 Stanford defied the Bear’s wave of momentum and stole a No. 1 seed with an 11-10 victory at the Farm.
Thursday morning, the Bears had a clear path to taking the first seed of the MPSF tournament. All they needed was a win against a Stanford team that they had beaten earlier this year, and the top spot was theirs. Yet the Cardinal proved to be a stumbling block for Cal.
A lingering question heading into this game was whether or not Cal’s key offensive player, Luca Cupido, would play this week. Last week, his absence was noticed as Cal put on a low-scoring performance in the win against USC. When the starting lineup was announced and Cupido’s number wasn’t, the Cardinal reacted as if a burden had been taken off of their shoulders.
Deep into the fourth quarter, it was still anyone’s game. The Bears began the final period trailing 11-8 but were soon knocking on the Cardinal’s door thanks to a power-play goal from senior Conor Neumann and a steal-and-score sequence from junior Johnny Hooper with 3:26 left in the quarter. The Cal defense continued to hold, and the offense earned a power play with 1:26 remaining.
Stanford responded with a big stop but gave up yet another power play with 19 seconds remaining. In the midst of an otherwise quiet outing, junior Odysseas Masmanidis drew the exclusion, and Cal head coach Kirk Everist called a timeout. Following the break, the Bears watched their final chance to force overtime float wide of the goal.
The Cardinal offense showed they have multiple players prepared to make an impact. Freshman Ben Hallock (who has scored a hat trick in 11 games this season) was held to only one goal, but others stepped up in his stead. Redshirt senior Connor Stapleton and true freshman Sawyer Rhodes were the duo that truly hurt Cal, with each recording three goals against the Bears’ defense. Stanford benefited from a total of six players each scoring.
Hooper picked up the slack for the Bears, making playing without Cupido less of a relief for the Cardinal as they had initially hoped. Hooper led all scorers with four goals, marking one in each quarter. It wasn’t just Hooper who contributed either — Cal spread the ball around to five scorers besides Hooper. Despite their efforts, Cal did not have the clutch goal it needed when the game was on the line.
The Cardinal escaped the day with a lead of the slimmest of margins, snapping Cal’s eight-game win streak and challenging the Bears to respond to an emotional setback. Though it may be hard to swallow the loss, Bears fans can rest easy knowing that this team battles until the end and can keep it close with any team.
Armen Aprahamian covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]