So close, yet so far away. The No. 4 Cal men’s water polo team (18-6) entered the weekend at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, or MPSF, Tournament at USC knowing that it had to make huge moves to salvage any chance of making the NCAA tournament.
With only three spots available in the bracket — based on the current standings within the conference — the Bears were well aware that they were on the outside looking in heading into things. Winning this end of the season tournament, however, would have eased any speculation and automatically placed them in the field.
And despite the uphill battle on paper, Cal got off to the start it needed to make its quest to make some magic happen. As the No. 3 seed, Cal easily dismantled Austin College in the opening round Friday night, 27-3.
Friday’s victory then set up the key matchup against USC in the semifinals. It was crucial for the Bears to pull off the upset against the No. 2-seeded Trojans, who had easily dominated both meetings earlier this season.
It was clear from the opening sprint that the Bears came out much stronger against the Trojans. As expected, things were chippy and physical and ultimately tight through three quarters. With Cal down 9-7 going into the fourth, the defense stepped up to the plate and was able to keep USC scoreless for the rest of the game.
Cal methodically added goals on offense, as junior Safak Simsek added his second goal of the day with six seconds remaining, which was ultimately the game winner. Statement made.
“After all the work we’ve put in throughout the year, it’s always great to see who we truly are,” Simsek said. “It feels great to score the last goal, but I’m more proud of my teammates who worked to bring us back in the match.”
In another rematch, Cal landed a date with No. 1 Stanford in the championship match for their third game in as many days — just as the team drew things up. This time out, though, the Bears could not ride the high of their upset from the day prior and fell in a crushing 12-10 defeat.
At one point in the third quarter, Cal extended its lead to 8-5 after junior Jordan Hoover scored a goal out of center with about five minutes left in the period. From that point, Stanford clicked into another gear and went on a scoring spree led by sophomore Tyler Abramson.
Stanford rattled off five goals to close out the quarter and snatched a 10-9 lead heading into the final frame, one which the Cardinal did not relinquish. At the final buzzer, Stanford celebrated, and Cal was left to deal with the stinging loss that hurt just a little bit more because it was at the hands of the rival Cardinal.
The Bears would be left to wait a day to see their tournament fate. When the NCAA bracket was announced Monday, Cal was indeed the one MPSF program that was left out of the fold. After a valiant effort to make a rally for the postseason, Cal’s fight came up just short, and the Bears see their 2018 season officially closed.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].