No. 1 Cal women’s water polo stifles No. 4 UCLA with tight defense

Phillip Downey/File

Related Posts

They say that the third time’s the charm. Recently, however, No. 1 Cal has taken care of business in only two.

The team’s 5-3 win against No. 4 UCLA (16-3, 0-1) made up for a loss in the first matchup between the two, which occurred two weeks ago. This marked the second opponent against whom Cal (14-3, 2-0) successfully got revenge, the first being No. 1 Stanford last weekend. Currently the Bears and Cardinal share the top spot in the CWPA rankings.

The Bears’ win at Spieker Aquatics Complex broke a 16-game losing streak against the Bruins that dated back to 2012.

Down 3-1 late in the second quarter, it looked like the disappointing Bears of old were threatening to make an appearance. But as the second half began, Cal evidenced why it shares the No. 1 overall ranking.

“Ultimately, we were giving up too many easy looks early,” said Cal head coach Coralie Simmons. “We took five exclusions in the first quarter, which put us on our heels right away and made it tough for us to get going.”

Soon after, the Bear defense tightened up in elite fashion. UCLA shot attempts rarely made it to junior goalie Madison Tagg, as flailing arms from Cal defenders often deflected the ball away.

“We’re able to play games that are low-scoring and control the tempo, capitalizing on our ability to make stops and play defense,” Simmons said.

The Bears only needed five saves from Tagg to limit a high-octane Bruin offense, which had been averaging 10 goals per game while surrendering a remarkably low three scores from its opponents.

On Cal’s offensive end, the two biggest goals came in sequence for the Bears. Redshirt junior Kacey Avalos scored on a power play with less than one minute left in the first half to cut UCLA’s lead to 3-2. Sophomore Emma Wright rattled in the equalizer off of a penalty in the third.

The Bears are beginning to put all of their talent together, and the rest of collegiate water polo’s elite should be concerned.

Cal’s impressive pair of freshmen Kitty Lynn Joustra and Elli Protopapas did not have the biggest impact on Saturday’s match, but the two have both shown the ability to step up in timely moments.

Meanwhile, the senior trio of Dóra Antal, Carla Carrega and Anna Illés has been particularly explosive. On any given day, each of them can take command and score multiple goals for the Bears.

Against the Bruins, it was Illés who stepped up when the team needed her — she found the back of the net twice and reminded fans of her star power.

The win improves Cal’s MPSF record to 2-0, and with more strong play, the Bears could finish with a winning conference record, something they have failed to do in the last two seasons.

Simmons, however, warned against getting too complacent in the midst of a couple of wins against long-time rivals.

“If we get too caught up in the wins, we are going to lose sight of what we need to take care of day in and day out in practice,” Simmons said.

MPSF play — and more top-10 competition — continues for Cal this weekend against No. 6 Arizona State (14-4) in Tempe.

Dev Navani covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].