Similar to season one of ‘Parks and Recreation’ and my first semester at Cal, the Cal men’s water polo team has gotten off to a disappointing start.
Coming into the Triton Invitational, fourth-ranked Cal was the overwhelming favorite as the top three teams — Stanford, USC and UCLA — were all absent from the competition held by UC San Diego. Despite the favored odds and veteran leadership of senior players, such as attacker Safak Simsek and goalkeeper Bernardo Carelli, the Bears ultimately fell short.
At the outset, it appeared as if Cal was ready to make this a statement tournament. In its first match against Whittier College, Cal outscored the Poets (yes, its team is called the Poets) 22-3, featuring goals from 13 different players. The Bears domination continued in their second group stage match against Loyola Marymount University, at one point boasting a 10-3 lead before ultimately winning the game 14-9.
With both wins in hand, Cal emerged from group A the victor and prepared to handle a team of a much different caliber — the seventh-ranked UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. Close and competitive, the Bears closed the half tied with the Gauchos 4-4. Simsek, Cal’s second-leading scorer last year, led all players with two goals at the half. But he and the rest of the Bears were shut out for most of the second half, scoring only one goal in the final minute of the third before dropping a goose egg in the final period. Conversely, the Gauchos’ offense was not to be dettered, as they rattled off four unanswered goals in the third period, ultimately claiming their first victory over Cal in 15 years. The Gauchos would go on to win the tournament after defeating fifth-ranked Long Beach State 12-9.
Rallying from their disappointing loss, the Bears went on to face 13th-ranked UC Irvine in the third place consolation match. Unlike its matchup with UC Santa Barbara, Cal came out swinging in the first half, scoring seven unanswered goals to start the match. The Anteaters attempted to mount a comeback in the final two periods, but by the time the offense found its groove, the match was all but over. Once again, Cal attacker Simsek led all scorers with four goals, one in each period.
Despite claiming third place, the Triton Invitational should certainly be categorized as a failure for the Bears. Losses such as these are reminiscent of Cal’s 2018 campaign where, despite occasional flashes of brilliance with victories over UCLA and USC, the Bears ultimately fell short in qualifying for the NCAA championship. The Bears hope their 2019 season nets not only a return to the tournament, but perhaps a championship as well. If, however, their play continues to falter when facing opponents of a high caliber, they might once again find themselves spectators come November.