The script was almost flipped. Ultimately, No. 4 Cal men’s water polo hung on for a close 13-12 victory to officially sweep its three meetings with No. 5 UC Santa Barbara this season, but the third and final win did not come easily.
On Friday night, the Gauchos let a four-goal lead slip in the fourth quarter in a gut-wrenching loss to No. 6 Pacific. Without a doubt, that loss put a sour taste in their mouths heading into their matchup with the Bears.
“You wonder if you are going to see one team or another team that is feeling bad about themselves or a team that is going to come out and battle and prove to be a proud team,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist.
The question was answered early — the Gauchos came to Berkeley on Saturday with a vengeance and put up an inspired fight against the Bears.
UCSB scored its first goal of the game and set the tone for a gritty, physical and competitive match through all four quarters. Cal quickly responded with a power play by none other than star senior Johnny Hooper, who tallied his first of six goals in the contest to tie the game at one apiece. From there, the back-and-forth affair was underway.
“We struggled a little bit on the defensive end, giving up a lot of ejections that we could avoid,” Everist said. “They were moving a lot, but we were crowding them and not getting away from people, and we did not do a good job of keeping six defenders in the pool at the same time”.
Everist was spot-on with his analysis — Cal committed 14 exclusions and the Gauchos converted seven of those chances to play with a man up into goals. Ultimately, those gifts from the Cal defense are what kept the game so close for the entire 32 minutes Saturday afternoon.
When Cal was able to slow down UCSB and force the Gauchos into playing traditional 2-meter offense sets, the Bears proved why they are one of the best teams in the country. They were able to record the key steals, field blocks and saves that have been at the center of their success so far this season.In a one-minute span midway through the fourth quarter, sophomore Nikos Delagrammatikas scored twice and gave the Bears their largest cushion of the day. Cal carried that 13-10 lead all the way to the finish, as UCSB tried to climb back but fell one goal short at the final buzzer when its last shot barely missed above the goal.
“I think our first game with them was pretty tight for most of the game. The second game, we came out really strong and jumped all over them, and today’s performance was somewhere in the middle,” Everist said.
It was another fair assessment by Everist, who can at least walk away with the peace of mind that his team added another win to its impressive record this season. All day, the Gauchos had an answer for the Bears’ moves, but when it mattered most, a few of Cal’s tricks could not be outmaneuvered.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].