Coming off of a heartbreaking loss to No. 3 Stanford in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships, the No. 2 Bears will prep for their first NCAA championship appearance since 2017.
Luckily for Cal, it will have a first-round bye and face the winner of the first-round No. 4 USC and No. 10 Bucknell match.
While the Bears have gotten the best of the Trojans this season, Cal will be looking to redeem itself, as it has some history with USC in the NCAA tournament: In 2016, it defeated USC in the championship but lost to the Trojans in the semifinals the following year.
The Bears vs. the Bisons has a nice ring to it, but it likely won’t happen. Bucknell is a respectable 4-1 on the season, but it has only faced one ranked team this season — then-No. 9 Navy on two occasions — and the program is unranked itself. Additionally, having played just five games this season will hinder the Bisons, as they will not have as much chemistry as the Trojans. USC has played almost three times as many games as Bucknell, and the last time the Trojans played an unranked squad, they won 21-5.
The Bears struck gold with the seeding, as they will likely face off against the Trojans for the sixth time this season. Cal is 4-1 against USC this season and has beaten the Trojans four straight times. Because the Bears have played more games against the Trojans than any other opponent this season, they will be familiar with each other.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed in the playoffs, especially in a do-or-die match, so Cal must not underestimate any opponent. While the Bears have bested the Trojans four times this season, every game has been decided by just three goals, so they must stay sharp to avoid an upset.
USC must be confident heading into the tournament, as it handily beat UCLA 11-7 in its most recent game. Confidence is everything in a tournament, as it just takes one game to spark a Cinderella run.
In order to prevent any type of upset against USC, Cal must figure out how to neutralize USC’s electric offensive duo of senior driver Jacob Mercep and junior 2-meter Jake Ehrhardt, who have a combined 54 goals on the season. Mercep and Ehrhardt’s offense coupled with the solid goalkeeping of Nic Porter makes USC a tough matchup no matter what.
With that said, the Bears have all the tools to pull off the win. Cal’s offensive firepower has simply proven to be too much for the USC defense to handle four times this season,
to be exact.
On the other side of the bracket, UCLA will likely play Stanford in the quarterfinal. It’s tough to predict the Bears’ championship matchup, as the Bruins have beaten the Cardinal twice this season, but Stanford has the better record and higher seeding. Another factor to consider is that Stanford has the benefit of a first-round bye while the Bruins will have tired legs going into the matchup. This is all assuming the No. 3-ranked Bruins take care of business against an unranked 7-4 Cal Baptist squad.
It won’t be easy, but Cal will have to channel the offensive and defensive prowess it displayed throughout the season to win the championship on the collegiate sport’s biggest stage.