Rivalry games can often go one of two ways — a blowout by one side that is quickly forgotten or a super competitive matchup that is etched into the record books. Based on the similarities between these two squads, it should be the latter.
In this year’s edition of the Big Splash, No. 4 Cal men’s water polo welcomes archrival No. 3 Stanford to the Spieker Aquatics Center on Saturday. It is the first meeting between the rivals this season. While the Bears and Cardinal could have potentially met at the MPSF Invitational back in October, it was not meant to be.
In its most recent matches, Stanford is coming off a loss to then-No. 4 UCLA, while Cal could not keep up with USC. Ironically enough, Cal has beaten UCLA, and Stanford topped USC earlier this season. With those statistics in mind, who’s to say how this game will turn out?
The competitiveness of the conference is undeniable. Any team could have its number on any given day. The difference maker that will decide this contest remains to be seen.
Star players will be the story of the 2018 edition of the Big Splash. The Cardinal are led by redshirt sophomore All-American Ben Hallock, who has earned MPSF Player of the Week honors twice this season.
The Bears have their own MPSF all-star, senior Johnny Hooper, who has earned just as many Player of the Week honors this season. Hooper and Hallack also rank first and second in the conference with 3.91 and 2.94 goals per game, respectively.
With all the attention squarely on those two shooters, there is room for someone else to step up and take advantage of the situation to become a rivalry game hero. For Cal, that could be senior Odysseas Masmanidis, who continues to work his way into the All-American shape that he showed last season after being out of the pool for a stretch in October.
In three meetings last season, the Bears took two victories by a combined total of three goals. None were bigger than the third-place match at the MPSF Championships that Cal won 10-9, which guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament bracket.
This game will be huge because of those implications again this year. The results of this game will decide seeding for the MPSF Tournament, and only the top three finishers there will get bids to the NCAA Championships.
It is a must-win for the Bears, who could fall to the fourth seed in the MPSF if they lose Saturday. That would definitely put them on the outside looking in, a position unfamiliar to a team that has had so much consistent success over the better part of a decade.
The Big Splash will bring the best from both teams, and most likely the drama as well, as the teams look quite evenly matched this season. If the Bears and Cardinal show up for the biggest game of the season ready for battle, the contest will live up to the hype and tradition of this rivalry matchup.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].