No. 1 Bears prepare for southern California showdowns in MPSF tournament

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“To the victor goes the spoils.” Because they are the No. 1 seed at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament, the Bears are set to have a bye game, already putting themselves a step ahead of their competition. Cal will have to wait and see the results of two games, as the blue and gold are slated to play the winner of a showdown between USC and whoever wins among Austin College and Penn State Behrend.

Here is a breakdown of all of Cal’s potential opponents for its Saturday match, which is set to take place at 11 a.m.

Austin College and Penn State Behrend

Austin College sits at 0-2 on the season, as the Kangaroos have lost their two matches by a combined 22 points. Aside from those two contests, Austin College has had its five outings either canceled or postponed. Looking towards Penn State Behrend, the Lions have yet to play a game this season and held an unimpressive 7-14 record in 2019. Both squads have likely not had enough reps this season to truly compete with the other teams at this tournament, so if the Bears play either of these opponents, expect a blowout win.

USC

While Cal has beaten USC in 3 of 4 tries this season, every game was decided by three points, so it is critical that the blue and gold doesn’t underestimate the Trojans. Moreover, No. 4 USC has proven that it is very capable of beating other top teams and should have some newfound confidence after downing No. 2 UCLA to the tune of 9-4. Cal will have to figure out how to contain the Trojans’ senior driver Jacob Mercep if it wants to win comfortably, as he is an offensive force to be reckoned with. Mercep has a team-high 28 goals this season, 15 more than the next highest scorer. While Mercep’s high volume scoring may depict him as a one-man show, USC’s role players have shown that they also have the potential to go off. For example, in the Trojans’ most recent matchup against the Bruins, senior 2-Meter Wyatt Barker led all scorers with four goals. This was impressive and relatively unpredictable considering that Barker only had seven goals on the season up to that point, so the Bears must be cautious on defense.

If Cal advances past the winner of the USC v. Austin College/Penn State Behrend game, the Bears would take on either Stanford or UCLA in the championship round. So here’s a preview of those two familiar Pac-12 foes.

UCLA

The Bruins come in as the No. 2 seed in the tournament and play from the comfort of home. Heading into the weekend, Cal holds a 3-1 series advantage over UCLA this season, with all three of the Bears’ wins being decided in overtime. The Bruins will likely have a sense of urgency coming into this match, as they were blown out of the water by the Trojans in their last outing, and certainly do not want to lose to the same opponent four times in a season. Expect senior attacker Nicolas Saveljic to come out aggressive for UCLA, as he hung six goals on Cal in the teams’ most recent meeting. The Bears will also be watching out for freshman attacker Mo Kenney, who has been on his own hot streak as of late — Kenney has scored in the Bruins’ last seven contests, and will be looking to continue his surge in Los Angeles.

Stanford

Last but not certainly not least is the Cardinal. Cal’s archrival poses the biggest threat to the Bears, even as a three seed. The blue and gold’s biggest loss of the season came to Stanford, so Cal must make the necessary adjustments if the teams meet again. The Cardinal also held the Bears’ sophomore Nikolaos Papanikolaou, who was named MPSF Player of the Year, to one goal last time, so other members of the blue and gold must step up in this potential matchup. Cal must figure out how to neutralize Stanford’s breadth of offensive weapons, as Stanford had eight different players score last game. While one might chalk up the loss to fatigue on the No. 1 Bears’ part, it was very clear that the blue and gold had few answers for Stanford’s offensive arsenal. That being said, the Bears have been the superior team this season and also beat the Cardinal 16-11 in their first matchup, so a third, tiebreaking matchup between the rivals would be a sight to see.

The blue and gold have proven that it is the cream of the crop with its consistently elite play throughout the season and still rank No. 1 nationally. Cal’s offensive depth coupled with its superb goalkeeping may pose too much to handle for any team, so the crown may be on its way back to Berkeley.

Justin Kim covers women’s basketball and men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].