Saturday’s matchup between No. 7 Cal and No.1 USC got off to a decidedly lopsided start, but could hardly have been more suspenseful as it neared the end. The Trojans won the day but the Bears proved that they are capable of making noise in the upcoming Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships.
After one quarter of action, it did not look like this game’s outcome would be determined in its final minutes. USC dominated the opening period, outscoring Cal 4-1 and only allowing the Bears to find the back of the net on a 5-meter penalty shot by redshirt sophomore Miles O’Brien-Schridde.
The game practically could have ended there. Cal could have thrown in the towel and allowed USC’s players to sport smug smiles for the rest of the match, while Trojans fans shamelessly threw up the “V for victory” hand sign. But the Bears came to battle.
“I think the most important thing we showed today was that we’re here to fight and we’re not going to give up no matter what,” said redshirt senior Jordan Hoover, who had three goals, three assists and two steals.
After a dejecting first eight minutes of play, Cal regrouped. The Bears matched the Trojans’ three goals in the second period with three of their own. Freshman center Nikolaos Papanikolaou caused serious problems for the USC defense, drawing exclusions that created opportunities for his teammates and finding the net for the first of his three goals on the day.
It was in the third quarter, though, when things got really interesting. It was then that the Bears started playing with swagger and seemed to convince themselves that an upset was a legitimate possibility. Given that Cal and USC could be meeting at the MPSF Championships in a week, this was a much-needed turning point.
If the Bears win their Friday MPSF Championships opener, they will take on the Trojans once again on Saturday.
As Jordan Hoover confidently put it, “We’re going to be playing this team a week from today and I’m really glad we showed ourselves that we can do this. We can play with them, we can battle them and we can make them take it from us.”
At the beginning of the second half, Cal started getting animated and made several big plays. Freshman goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg cheekily waved a finger at a USC attacker after stopping his shot. Jake Stone, another freshman, attacker, splashed the water around him joyfully after a goal that tied the game 9-9.
The Bears’ upset bid seemed plausible. Their hopes reached a peak with 6:18 remaining in the fourth quarter when Papanikolaou earned his final goal, a score that happened to bring Cal its first lead on the day.
But it wasn’t to be. USC’s sophomore 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt came alive when the Trojans needed him most, delivering an assist and a pair of goals, including the one that turned out to be the dagger, in the final five minutes. For the second time this season, Cal fell to USC by a single goal. When the final buzzer sounded, it was 14-13 in the Trojans’ favor.
Cal’s loss can be attributed to a slow start and its failure to take advantage of a 6-on-4 power play in the match’s waning minutes, but there was still much for the Bears to be proud of. They gave the nation’s top-ranked team hell, and had a couple of plays gone differently, the Bears would have garnered a successful upset.
Sure, this loss will sting for a day. With that said, Cal proved its resilience and composure and turned what could have been a blowout in USC’s favor into a nail-biter that went down to the wire. There’s hardly a better way to head into the MPSF Championships.
Ethan Moutes covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].