In the water polo world, the “Conference of Champions” surely lives up to its name. While the Pac-12 schools that field men’s water polo programs technically belong to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, the reputation and attachment to the Pac-12’s legacy still remains.
So let’s forget about Pac-12 football for a moment and turn attention toward the No. 4 Cal men’s water polo (12-1) team and the other programs turning up the heat in the pool.
The Bears will open their MPSF campaign Friday afternoon against LMU across the Bay on Stanford’s campus. The two squads have yet to meet this season, but recent history sides in Cal’s favor, including a 16-1 beat down last season.
Should Cal get past LMU, the team would then face the winner of UCSB and Pomona’s showdown. From there, the potential opponents for the Bears are up to the field, but the team is expected to make a deep run into the tournament and to face some top-level competition.
Unlike in March Madness, where upsets are almost inevitable, the bracket tends to follow the seeding, meaning the Bears should expect to see at least one of the top four ranked teams in the country.
Top seed USC, No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 3 seed Stanford all wait for the opportunity to take a crack at Cal. A mutual respect exists among all four programs, as each side knows that any one team could beat any of the others seemingly at any time. After all, the quartet has combined to win 43 of the 48 national championships in the sport.
“The chemistry we have built from the offseason to now has gotten very strong, and we are now starting to realize what each individual player wants and what we can do better collectively to get to our team goals by the end of the season,” senior Vassilis Tzavaras said.
Tzavaras and his teammate, junior Safak Simsek, top the stat sheet and are tied for the team lead in scoring with 27 goals apiece. Cal will need those offensive weapons to produce this weekend, while also relying on the top-notch goalkeeping it has seen from junior Bernardo Carelli, who is averaging 11.69 saves per contest.
Cal has not played a match since a 13-11 win against Pepperdine on Sept. 30. With nearly two weeks off, the Bears have had an important training block in Berkeley with their entire roster present.
“The big break that we had was very good to get some conditioning in and think of our strategy for this weekend,” Tzavaras said.
At the MPSF Invitational last year, Cal made a run to the semifinals before narrowly falling to UCLA, 9-8. In 2016, the Bears got one step further but once again lost at the hands of the Bruins in the final match. It remains to be seen what is in store for 2018.
“We have had a good start to the season, but this weekend is going to test us,” Tzavaras said. “We have not played four games in a weekend, so this will be the first time that we will be able to see where we are staminawise.”
Certainly, Cal has a worthy shot and is hoping to bring much-needed conference wins back to Berkeley, a feat many of the other clubs around campus have yet to accomplish.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].