For Cal men’s water polo, it might not have been the season finale the team had envisioned about three months ago. But, when the team’s history of success causes each season’s goal to be a national championship, it’s hard to live up to those expectations year in and year out.
The Bears finished their 2018 campaign at 18-6, falling to Stanford in the MPSF Tournament championship game, with the team unable to get a bid for the NCAA championship.
At the beginning of the season, the Bears knew they had big shoes to fill, having lost 2017 All-American and leading scorer Luca Cupido as well as starting goalkeeper Kevin Le Vine. Cal, however, had a group of players ready to take on the challenge of upholding the success of the program.
The Bears had to battle against roster changes throughout the season as key seniors missed significant amounts of time.
Senior Johnny Hooper, who was selected to the MPSF First Team, missed the first month of the season as he was playing in the World Cup for the U.S. men’s water polo team. Another All-MPSF standout, senior Odysseas Masmanidis, also missed a few weeks of action with an injury during a key stretch in October.
Despite the ups and downs over the course of the season, the Bears still managed to squarely put themselves into contention for a national title. Hovering around the No. 3 or No. 4 ranking for most of the season, Cal took home marquee wins late in the season against USC and UCLA to really showcase their depth and talent.
The Bears were unable to string together consecutive wins against their top rivals in the MPSF, ultimately pushing Cal out of the national championship bracket. After the win against UCLA on Oct. 27, the Bears could not back it up the next week in a key conference matchup against USC. Likewise, after the massive upset against the Trojans in the Bears’ penultimate tournament, they could not finish off the Cardinal.
With a young squad, the Bears have a lot to look forward to in 2019. After averaging 10.21 saves per game in his first year as a starter, junior Bernardo Carelli will return with more experience to anchor the team in the goalkeeper position.
Cal will also have strong senior leadership again next season. The team’s second-leading scorer with 47 goals, junior Safak Simsek, will be a key piece of the offensive puzzle along with junior Jordan Hoover, who came on strong in the last few weeks of the season.
The loss of Hooper, who closed out his illustrious Cal career as the second all-time leading scorer in program history, will be a hard one to make up. His 245 goals over the past four seasons gave the Bears an offensive weapon unlike any other in the nation.
In Hooper, Masmandis and senior Vassilis Tzavaras, the Bears will lose a talented group, but head coach Kirk Everist has strong players waiting to step up in their absence.
Cal can rest on its laurels after another solid season as one of the best teams in the country. Although it might not have been the picture-perfect ending, it was another season to be revered.
Charlie Griffen covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].