It’s been a challenging season for the Cal men’s water polo team. This year’s roster is full of young talent and has battle-tested seniors Jordan Hoover and Safak Simsek, providing veteran leadership, but the Bears were relatively inconsistent in their 12-10 regular season campaign.
Come Friday, none of that will matter. Come Friday, the postseason begins, and Cal has the opportunity to rewrite this season’s narrative.
The Bears will play three games in the upcoming Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, or MPSF, Championships. The first will take place 3 p.m. Friday and will see Cal squaring off with the winner of a Friday morning game between Penn State Behrend and Austin College.
If the Bears win that game, they’ll be pitted against the USC Trojans on Saturday. Penn State Behrend and Austin College had regular season records of 6-12 and 3-17, respectively, and had considerably less formidable schedules than Cal. Therefore, it is quite likely that Cal will move on to meet defending national champion USC.
The Bears and Trojans are far from strangers. They first met at the SoCal Invitational in late September and dueled for a second time Saturday. In both games, USC prevailed by a single goal.
Freshman center Nikolaos Papanikolaou was outstanding despite the loss in the Bears and Trojans’ second match. Papanikolaou drew seven exclusions and managed three goals against the nation’s top-ranked team, simply overpowering defenders and forcing them to foul him.
For his performance, Papanikolaou earned MPSF Newcomer of the Week honors for the second time this year. Freshman goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg also performed well, collecting 12 saves and a pair of steals.
If the Bears beat the Trojans in the semifinals, they move on to the championship game Sunday, which will most likely feature UCLA or Stanford. If Cal loses its first game, the Bears will play for fifth place Sunday; win the first and lose to USC, and they’ll be playing for third.
It will take a herculean effort for Cal to pull off the three victories needed to claim victory in the MPSF Championship, but it certainly won’t hurt that the Bears will be playing at home.
“I think playing at home is always great,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “I would anticipate us having a good, big crowd like we had last weekend (against USC). It’s worth some energy; it’s worth a goal here or there. It definitely helps you fight through some bumpy moments, so we’re excited to host it. … I don’t think it gets any better than this place.”
While Cal has a less than stellar record at home this season (1-4), the Bears have fought ferociously against some of the nation’s top teams in their home Spieker Aquatics Complex. UC Davis, UCSB, Pepperdine and USC are responsible for Cal’s four losses at home, and all of them are top-10 teams.
Moreover, the Bears’ performance at home this past weekend should give them a lot of confidence. They battled valiantly against the Trojans in what could have been a preview of Saturday’s game. While Cal fell short, it showed that it could compete with the top-ranked team in the nation.
The Bears have, at the very least, dark horse potential at the MPSF Championships.
”We’re a tough team, and we’re fighting,” Everist said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to just go, ‘It’s not our year,’ but we’re battling and learning and getting better, and we’ve had different people step up, and we’re going to need all hands on deck for the weekend to get a couple upsets and break the bracket a little bit. … We have the ability to do it; I know that.”
Cal’s postseason opens 3 p.m. Friday against the winner of the Penn State Behrend and Austin College game.
Ethan Moutes covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].