Defense wins championships.
It’s an idea that coaches hammer into their players’ heads so often that it almost seems cliche at times. But in the waning moments of a big game, nothing is more important than shutting down the opponent. The blue and gold are still a long way from a championship, but in the final minutes of Saturday’s 11-10 victory over No. 9 UCSB, No. 5 Cal showed that it has at least one attribute of a champion.
After falling behind 11-8 in the fourth period, the Gauchos scored two quick goals to bring the game within one. With five minutes left on the clock, they looked to ride this offensive momentum to more scoring. But that was not in the cards. Cal pitched a shutout the rest of the way, anchored by the fantastic play of senior goalkeeper Cassidy Ball. Ball, who led the MPSF in saves last year, denied all five of UCSB’s final attempts. She credited the entire team’s mentality for their crunch time success.
“At the beginning of the game you’re all engines running, trying to score goals and counter,” Ball said. “But at that point, we all knew we had to maximize our time, maximize our looks and not get too excited.”
When the Gauchos had the ball for their final offensive possession, the Bears showed their composure. Cal guarded the passing lanes, cut off shooting angles and forced UCSB freshman attacker Nina Munson to take a tough shot that went straight into Ball’s hands. To the veteran goalkeeper, the end was never in doubt.
“Sometimes it’s not even about the block, but it’s about being at the end of a possession and knowing that your defense is so much better than their offense that even if they do get a shot off, it’s gonna be a block,” Ball said. “That feeling is unparalleled.”
Ball’s outstanding performance came from a special place. After the game, she dedicated her play to a lifelong best friend and Cal teammate.
“I was playing for Georgia Gilmore, who has been my best friend for 22 years and recently got injured. The way I played was for her,” Ball said.
The whole team was able to rally around this hardship and put up an elite defensive performance, totalling 16 steals to UCSB’s seven. Junior Elli Protopapas accounted for four of those steals and freshman Mallory Reynoso had three. Reynoso also had a goal and two assists on the offensive end, propelling the Bears’ well-rounded attack. Protopapas and All-MPSF First Team senior Brigit Mulder also made an impact on that end, scoring two goals apiece.
Now, Cal sets its eyes on next week’s matchup against No. 3 UCLA. A win over the Bruins would be a massive testament that the Bears belong with the elite teams in the country. Both teams are undefeated and looking to avoid their first loss of the year. But Ball says that regardless of the opponent, Cal is laser-focused to improve as much as it can and not let any opportunity go to waste, especially after the way its 2020 season abruptly ended.
“Before each game, (Gilmore would) say that this could be our last game,” Ball said. “And so I think that there is no one on our team who is taking even a single possession for granted.”
And as seen in last Saturday’s dominant defensive performance, the Bears have the willingness to fight until the final buzzer.
Casey Grae covers women’s water polo and writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected]