Among the top four nationally ranked teams in men’s water polo, expect the unexpected. No. 4 Cal (16-5) enters the MPSF Tournament on a two-match skid against conference foes, but anything can happen.
After a hot start to their MPSF campaign, the Bears stumbled against the Trojans and Cardinal in key matches over the past couple of weeks. Those losses, however, could all be made up for with a strong showing this weekend.
Cal will open the weekend Friday as the No. 3 seed against the loser of a tie-breaker game between Penn State Behrend and Austin College. If the Bears get past that game, as they are highly expected to, No. 2 USC will be waiting in the semifinals.
It goes without saying that Cal would have preferred a potential semifinal matchup against top-seed Stanford, a team to which it only narrowly lost in an overtime classic last weekend. The Trojans, conversely, squarely beat the Bears in both of their meetings this season. It has just never been an advantageous matchup for Cal.
To start the season, Stanford was predicted to finish fourth in the conference in the MPSF preseason coaches’ poll. Fast-forward two months, and the Cardinal enter the tournament as the regular-season champions and, subsequently, the No. 1 seed. To try and predict the outcomes in this season now is a fool’s game.
The outcomes of the MPSF Tournament in recent years have also followed that trend. As the second seed last year, Cal was unable to win as it was bounced in the semifinals by the eventual national champion, UCLA.
This tournament should not be sugarcoated, and the stakes are huge for the Bears this weekend. They need to finish in the top three to secure a bid to the NCAA Championship in the first weekend of December.
Failure to qualify for the NCAAs would be a disappointment for the team that has won the most national titles in history — 14, to be exact. Considering the Bears have not missed the tournament since 2014, seniors Johnny Hooper, Vassilis Tzavaras and Odysseas Masmanidis surely will not want to end their collegiate careers on a sour note. The Bears will have to rely on those experienced players, who have led their 16 wins so far this season, if they hope to have any shot at making a deep run.
The key lies in the cage. Junior keeper Bernardo Carelli opened his 2018 campaign on a sizzling start but has cooled off, allowing 32 goals in three conference games and seeing his save average drop to 10.47 per game. He needs to bring the A-game that he has shown in flashes and, more importantly, make sure his defense gives him the room to track down incoming shots.
A win would ease the pressure off of the squad and free it up to pull more upsets as the season comes to a close. With the home stretch clearly in sight, it will be interesting to watch which squad can find the extra motivation and stamina to finish on top. Every team, Cal included, certainly has a fair chance.