Trojan War: No. 7 Cal to host No. 1 USC in regular season finale

Ireland Wagner/Staff

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Cal’s schedule seems to have saved the best for last. This Saturday, No. 1 USC travels to Spieker Aquatics Complex for a showdown with No. 7 Cal in what is to be the regular season finale for both teams.

The Trojans will enter the match determined to show that they deserve their recently acquired No. 1 spot. This past weekend, USC defeated then-No. 1 UCLA and, in doing so, stripped the Bruins of their title as the nation’s top team. The Bears, meanwhile, will be out to earn a statement win and climb the national rankings in the lead-up to the MPSF Championships.

Cal is coming off a weekend of mixed results. In the first of their two games, the Bears suffered a blowout loss to archrival Stanford Cardinal but collected themselves to earn their first home win of the season the following day against UC Irvine.

It won’t be the first time that these two squads have faced off in their 2019 campaigns; Cal and USC clashed at the SoCal Invitational in late September. It was a game the Trojans dominated for the duration of the first half but nearly squandered down the stretch.

In this first meeting, USC led 8-4 at the end of two periods and 12-7 at the end of three. The Bears roared back, outscoring the Trojans 5-1 in the game’s final frame, but their furious rally was too little, too late. Ultimately, Cal fell just short by a score of 13-12.

By nearly all metrics, the game was about as tightly contested as one can be. The Bears had 33 shots to the Trojans 30, both teams had 19 exclusions and nearly the same number of power-play goals. Granted, USC did score on a much higher percentage of its power plays, converting on 10 out of 15 whereas Cal was 8 for 17.

The Bears benefited from a balanced attack on offense. Redshirt senior Jordan Hoover was Cal’s leading scorer on the day, with three goals on just four shots. Two of those three goals came in the final four minutes of action. Hoover also assisted senior attacker Safak Simsek on one of Simsek’s two goals in that match.

Three freshmen — center Nikolaos Papanikolaou, 2-meter Warren Loth and attacker Sam Untrecht — added two goals each to Cal’s final tally. Papanikolaou has been the Bears’ second-most prolific goal-scorer this season, in spite of this being just his first year of college-level water polo.

Given the discrepancy between the percentage of power plays that Cal and USC scored in the last game, the Bears will likely be focused on taking advantage of windows in which the Trojans are shorthanded. At the same time, Cal will be looking to limit USC’s power-play opportunities as best it can. If the Bears can close the gap on power-play scoring percentage, an upset is quite conceivable.

This Saturday’s match has no implications for the upcoming MPSF Championships. With its victory over UCLA this past Saturday, USC locked up the top seed for the tournament. Cal, on the other hand, is slotted as the fourth seed regardless of whether it manages to pull off an upset this weekend.

With that being said, a win against the Trojans would work wonders for the Bears’ confidence heading into the MPSF Championships. Cal has come painfully close to beating UCLA, Pacific, UC Santa Barbara and USC — all of which are top-five teams — this season, but has never quite managed to finish the job.

Winning this Saturday would be especially meaningful given that the Trojans are water polo’s reigning national champions. The Bears have the opportunity to topple not only this season’s top-ranked program, but also the program that came out at the top of the heap this past year.

Cal will host USC at 1:00 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16.

Ethan Moutes covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].