Senior’s flu game propels Cal men’s water polo to NCAAs

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The Farm had a busy weekend, hosting the boisterous 120th Big Game and collegiate water polo’s MPSF Championships. Yet Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center fell awkwardly quiet Sunday afternoon as Cal men’s water polo stopped the Cardinal from making the NCAA Tournament, bringing an early end to their season. In that 10-9 overtime win, Cal (20-3) claimed third place in the tournament and showed the water polo world that the defending champs are still kicking in the hunt for a back-to-back.

Cal jumped into the pool with vivid memory of their stinging loss to the Cardinal in the Big Splash earlier this month. Yet again, Stanford seemed to have the upper hand early. The Bears won the starting sprint, but faster than Bryce Love’s 57-yard touchdown sucked the life out of the Cal student section, Stanford was up 3-0 and Cal badly needed an answer.

“It’s hard to deal with the emotion of a team in a game like that, they came out and took it to us early,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “Sometimes you’ve got to take it on the chin a few times early in the game, survive, and let the game play out. We’re a veteran team…the guys know it’s a long game. No matter how many goals they scored, we know we’re not out of it.”

The Bears clearly believed they were still in the game. They would go on to score four straight goals starting in the second and spanning into the third quarter. The run was highlighted by junior utility Odysseas Masmanidis’ spinning, no-look backhanded goal that weaved through his defender and the keeper’s outstretched arms. Stanford met Cal’s efforts and put the Bears in a dire situation late in the game.

Down by one goal with 20 seconds remaining on the clock, Cal senior Luca Cupido, recently back from missing a game due to illness, had no intention of allowing his career as a Bear to end in rival territory, and carried the team on his back. Avoiding a lunging defender at the perimeter, he notched a goal into the upper corner of the cage and followed it up by a steal at the other end to extend the match to overtime.

Cupido scored his fourth goal in the overtime, helping Cal to a 2-goal lead. The Cardinal managed to close the gap but in their final possession, none other than Cupido slapped the ball away, sending Stanford’s NCAA hopes ricocheting off into the distance. Cupido finished the day with the wild stat line of four goals, four assists, three steals and two field blocks.

Rewind to Friday night, and triumphant may have been the last word that could be used to describe the Bears. They had just taken an 8-5 loss from the Bruins (19-4) and never took a lead the entire game. Both offenses struggled against strong defensive play and goals came especially reluctantly for Cal.

“Both offenses struggled, making a two goal lead seem like six. … We got behind and we tried to score three goals in one possession which is impossible.” Everist said.

The Bears walked away from the loss knowing that they needed to win out in the tournament to secure a place in the NCAA’s. Cal channeled that sense of desperation into their Saturday game against Penn State Behrend, the youngest program in MPSFs. Ten different Bears each contributed a goal to mark an absolutely dominant 27-3 performance.

“It’s honestly kind of nice to have a game like that after a tough loss to get back into our rhythm” Everist said.

The Bears now continue to carry that rhythm heading into the NCAA tournament after defeating the Cardinal. The big win avenged their earlier loss to them in the Big Splash and gave Cal the lead in the series for the season. More importantly, the Bears, led by Luca Cupido’s critical return, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and have a strong position to win it all.

Armen Aprahamian covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected]