After a doubleheader against the then-No. 2 team in the country last weekend, Cal women’s water polo returned to Berkeley for another doubleheader — this time against the nation’s No. 1 team: USC. This weekend’s back-to-back matchups with the Trojans resembled last weekend’s, as the Bears were outplayed in the first match before coming back and showing improvement in the second. Unfortunately, just like last week, Cal could not sniff a win against another undefeated opponent.
Saturday’s match was a shootout, and the Bears ultimately couldn’t keep pace with what is arguably the best offense in the country. The first period went back and forth with the teams exchanging goals, but the game soon fell out of reach. USC caught absolute fire in the second period. The visitors opened it up with six consecutive goals before Cal finally responded with a single score to end the frame. Seemingly everyone stepped up for the Trojans, with redshirt seniors Denise Mammolito and Maud Megens scoring two goals apiece during that span. By the time the halfway point arrived, the Bears were already in a 12-5 hole.
Mammolito and Megens kept up their electric performances, each finishing with five goals to propel USC to victory. The Trojans ended the day with 56.7% of their shot attempts reaching the back of the cage compared to the blue and gold’s 39.3%. Cal still put up an impressive offensive performance, however, as senior Claire Sonne and sophomore Cecily Turner each pitched in three points. But the team performed poorly on defense, falling significantly below the standard it has established this season — it’s hard to surrender 17 goals and still win a match.
The Bears looked to rebound Sunday, and for a while, it looked as if they had figured out their opponents’ game plan. After USC took an early 2-0 lead, freshman Reagan Whitney and senior Brigit Mulder responded with two quick scores to knot the contest. The teams proceeded to go back-and-forth — every time, the Trojans tried to pull away with narrow leads, the Bears would not allow it. With 6:20 remaining in the third period, Sonne found the back of the net to give the blue and gold their first lead of the day. But USC quickly answered, and the third frame ended with a 9-8 lead for the visitors.
What had been a high scoring game up to that point was dragged down to a defensive standstill. For nearly the first four and a half minutes of the last period, neither team could put the ball in the cage. Trojans senior Verica Bakoc finally broke the dry spell when she beat Cal goalkeeper Cassidy Ball on a power play. It turned out Bakoc was just getting started, as she went on to complete a hat trick in the fourth period. The Bears couldn’t claw back, and by the time the final horn sound, USC had a 12-9 victory in its grasp.
Bakoc was, without question, the player of the game, pouring in a whopping seven goals on only nine attempts. Her superstar performance kept the Trojans alive despite an excellent Cal performance. Mulder, a 2020 All-MPSF First Team selection, finished the clash with four goals for the Bears, tacking on yet another great performance to a spectacular year.
However, USC showed why it’s the No. 1 team in the nation and maintained its unblemished record this season. Cal will host another tough doubleheader against No. 4 Arizona State next weekend. The showdown marks a crucial stretch of games for determining national rankings, and the Bears have an excellent chance at snagging a few signature wins as they hope to move beyond this rough point of the season.
Casey Grae covers women’s water polo and writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].