One. That’s the number of goals No. 8 Cal scored on power plays over the course of two games this weekend. Twenty-two. That’s the number of power play opportunities the Bears had. A winless homestand. That’s what comes with a lack of execution.
True, the blue and gold were pitted against two of college water polo’s preeminent programs this weekend. Cal faced No. 2 UCLA on March 7 and No. 5 UC Irvine on March 8, both of which are squads with stifling defenses. There’s no knocking the Bears’ effort, either. But offensive futility — especially in power play situations — doomed them in two winnable games.
Junior Claire Sonne spoke after Sunday’s game about how the young Cal team can improve.
“Because we are young, we lack a bit of experience,” Sonne said. “We’re certainly still in those stages of building chemistry, of coming together not only in the water but out of the water and being united as a team.”
It’s not entirely the team’s fault that they have yet to come together as a unit this season. Three of the team’s would-be leaders are training with their respective national teams in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, and 10 of the 26 players on the roster are freshmen.
With that being said, a lack of experience playing with one another showed in the many undesirable shots Cal took late in the shot clock and those failures to convert on power plays.
It was particularly apparent during the weekend’s first matchup, wherein the Bruins throttled the Bears. UCLA held Cal to five goals on 27 shots. That’s an 18.5 shot percentage, the worst the Bears have had in any match to this point in the 2020 campaign.
The game was competitive through the first quarter as the two perennial powerhouses alternated scores and were knotted at two goals apiece when the period ended. The Bruins looked to be pulling away when they went up 5-2 in the second, but freshman Cecily Turner launched a rocket into the top-right corner to bring the Bears back in striking distance to close the half.
But the second half belonged to UCLA. The Cal bench never went quiet. Cries of “Go Bears” rang out from the home team’s corner, but to no avail. Before long, the score was 9-5 in the Bruins’ favor, and the visitors never looked back, emerging on top 11-5.
Among the few silver linings for the home team was the fact that the Bears managed to hold standout freshman Abbi Hill to just one goal. Hill — the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s third-most prolific scorer this year — had 19 goals in a calendar week (January 25-31) earlier this season, but only managed to score on a five-meter penalty shot Saturday.
On March 8, Cal met with UC Irvine for the third time this year. In spite of the 9-7 final score, this game wasn’t much closer than the match against UCLA the day before. The Anteaters jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a five-meter penalty shot, a call and score that drew jeers from the home crowd.
For a moment, it seemed like the first of Turner’s third-quarter goals may have been just what the Bears needed to spark a comeback. It brought the score to 7-4, and roughly 12 minutes remained. But hope dwindled when the Anteaters answered right back with a score of their own. UC Irvine’s Tara Prentice had four goals on the day, and the Anteaters earned a 9-7 victory.
“We had two weeks of really hard work preparing for these games,” Sonne said. “These were not the outcomes we wanted, but we are a team with a lot of fight and we showed that we fight until the very last second.”
Nothing can be said against Cal’s determination. The Bears fought valiantly in both games, the bench never went silent and even as an NCAA tournament berth becomes less and less likely, Cal is convinced to make something of this season.
The Bears will look to bounce back next weekend against the No. 1 USC Trojans.
Ethan Moutes covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].