Slow starts are difficult to overcome, especially when playing the No. 1 team in the country. That was the case for No. 3 Cal men’s water polo against top-ranked USC, as the Bears fell behind early and ultimately couldn’t make things interesting against the Trojans, falling by a decisive score of 13-7.
The Bears were unprepared to match the level of energy that the Trojans began with and held for the entirety of the contest. From the start, USC stifled Cal’s offense with a pressing defense that saw many Cal players struggle to complete passes from as far as the middle of the pool. For the Bears, their lone point on the board in the opening eight minutes came on senior Johnny Hooper’s penalty shot.
On the flip side, Cal was sloppy on defense and surrendered easy shots on net to USC in the first quarter, highlighted by sophomore Sawyer Rhodes’ pair that found the back of the net.
Simply put, USC played like a top team while Cal did not, and the Bears found themselves looking at a 4-1 deficit at the end of the opening frame.
While both teams continued to get called for fouls because of the physical nature of the game, it was the Trojans who were able to convert turnovers and offensive possessions into goals to stretch the lead to 7-3 heading into halftime.
The third quarter was a bit of a different story and gave the Bears a sliver of hope. Cal goals by Hooper and junior Jordan Hoover made things more competitive and opened the door for Cal to make what seemed at the beginning of the game like an improbable comeback.
With just more than a minute left in that quarter and down four goals, Cal drew a USC exclusion and Hooper converted the power play to narrow the score line to 9-6. A three-goal deficit, however, was the closest that Bears would get to the Trojans from that point on.
USC came out in the fourth quarter, and its stars that had been silenced up to that point showed up — a statement that sealed the Bears’ fate. Sophomores Marko Vavic and Jacob Mercep, who lead in the Trojans in scoring, combined to tally three unanswered goals, extending the lead to 12-6 and effectively eradicating any chance of a Cal victory.
When Hooper scored his fourth and final goal of the day, time was no longer on the Bears’ side. The conference foe had gotten the best of Cal, and in the bigger picture, any chance of a regular-season conference title became an afterthought almost instantly.
Cal will have another crack at USC sometime down the road if it hopes to compete for the MPSF crown or the national title. The Bears have been handily beaten twice now by their Southern California rivals, but they have to figure out how to adjust their game plan to obtain an upset next time.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].