No. 33 Cal reaches Pac-12 final, but falls short of title

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The postseason is when hopes are crushed and dreams come true. No. 33 Cal men’s tennis did a little of both this weekend, as the team beat two higher-ranked teams to reach the Pac-12 championship before falling to No. 8 USC.

The fourth-seeded Bears started their run facing No. 28 Arizona State, which was seeded fifth because of losing the tiebreaker against Cal in the conference rankings, despite the higher national ranking. Cal’s doubles pairing of No. 31 Jacob Brumm and Yuta Kikuchi started the match by finding the groove that led them to many accomplishments earlier in the year and easily defeated the Sun Devils’ No. 12 Dominik Kellovsky and Nathan Ponwith, 6-0. Unranked Ben Draper and Jack Molloy clinched the doubles point for Cal after beating No. 77 Justin Roberts and Makey Rakotomalala.

Kikuchi, Molloy and Bjorn Hoffmann also won their singles matches to advance the Bears to the semifinals.

“For a young team to be performing the way we’re performing at this time of the year and peaking for the postseason, that says a lot about the makeup of this team,” said men’s tennis director Peter Wright.

The next matchup was against first-seeded defending champion No. 13 UCLA, which had defeated Cal twice in the regular season. The thought of losing a third time barely entered the team’s mind as the Bears won the doubles point after close matches on courts two and three.

Bruins’ freshman Patrick Zahraj evened the score by defeating Draper, but this was quickly answered by Hoffmann and Paul Barretto, who won in straight sets to put the Bears up 3-1. Then Brumm, who had missed much of the season because of injury, clinched the upset for Cal by defeating UCLA’s Ben Goldberg, 6-3, 6-2.

“This team is strong and powerful. It was wonderful for Jacob Brumm to clinch the deciding match against UCLA. I felt that was really a pivotal moment for our team this season, just to see Jacob, after all he’s been through this year, to come through a lot the adversity and be the guy who clinched the match,” Wright said. “That was a special moment for all of us.”

For a young team with no seniors, to defeat the No. 1 seed in the Pac-12 tournament was the pinnacle of the growth they were able to accomplish this season. “I’ve always known that our team is strong and solid, and for us to come out and beat Arizona State in the first match and then follow that up with a win over UCLA, who’s the defending champion, I think that’s a very strong performance by our guys,” Wright said. “It was a very emotional moment.”

In the finals, the Bears faced No. 8 USC, which they had split matches with during the regular season. Unfortunately for the Bears, the underdog magic seemed to run out, as they were swept by the Trojans.

“Even though the score was 4-0 against USC yesterday, we had a couple of guys in position to win their matches before the match was called off. I think we really gave it a great effort,” Wright said. “We’re a good team, and when we play the top teams in the country, we’re not always going to win every one.”

Now, the Bears are looking ahead to the 64-team NCAA championships in May. The bracket consists of 30 Division I conference winners and 34 at-large bids. As an up-and-coming team, Cal has a shot to make a deep run into the field. The last time the Bears made the Pac-12 finals, in 2016, the team was able to reach the final four in the national tournament.

“The conference tournament, we finished second. That’s a strong finish in our conference,” Wright said. “We’re peaking for the postseason, and we’re peaking during the postseason. That’s what any team wants to do.”

Trilok Reddy covers men’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].